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Getting a Little Racy: On Black Beauty, Evolution and the Science of Interracial Sex

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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A few weeks ago, Satoshi Kanazawa, a blogger at Psychology Today who was already notorious for his dubious claims about racial differences, especially with respect to intelligence, proclaimed on the basis of a bizarre data analysis that Black women are “objectively” the least attractive females of all the races. Objectively, mind you, which implies that it’s a matter of fact rather than his personal taste. Kanazawa, a Reader in the Department of Management at the London School of Economics (and not, incidentally, a psychologist, though he refers to himself—much to that discipline’s chagrin—as an evolutionary psychologist) and presently a visiting scholar at Cornell, scratched his head over these results. “ The only thing I can think of that might potentially explain the lower average level of physical attractiveness among black women,” explains Kanazawa, “is testosterone. Africans on average have higher levels of testosterone than other races, and … [w]omen with higher levels have more masculine features and are therefore less physically attractive. ”

I suspect Kanazawa is already self-flagellating in a remote cave somewhere, so I won’t address the many flaws in his disarmingly indelicate approach—that’s been done without pause, and deservedly so, in many other forums already. Neither will I revisit his troubled methodology for arriving at these strange conclusions, which have since been rebuked roundly by other researchers, one who failed to replicate Kanazawa’s controversial findings. I’ll simply say that, even if you are a racist, you must accept that Kanazawa’s assertion that attractiveness is measurable as an “objective” quality is erroneous.

The old saying that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is not just your worldly aunt’s favorite euphemism—it also happens to be true. My dog, Gulliver, and I, for instance, would probably have trouble getting on the same page about which is more attractive—that demure, two-year-old bitch down the road with an immaculate pedigree, or the airbrushed twenty-four-year-old-coed on this month’s cover of Playboy. To declare that one of us is “right” and the other “wrong” exposes the evolutionary error in trying to classify attractiveness in objective terms. It doesn’t matter how handsome he is—and he is quite handsome, I should say—but if Gulliver preferred supermodels to Shih Tzus, this wouldn’t be a very wise strategy from the mindless perspective of his genes. Likewise, and although there are more zoophiles out there than you may be aware, a heterosexual man of my age that finds canines in heat decidedly more attractive than fashion-industry supermodels would also run into severe problems in perpetuating his genes. I realize no female from any species would be sexually appealing to me, but that’s beside the point, just as is Gulliver’s status as a eunuch. Incidentally, Kanazawa also once crunched the numbers to conclude that gay men are uglier than straight men. (He’s obviously never heard of Bel Ami.)

Now, when it comes to “race”—a deeply flawed concept and term, since there are only minor heritable differences between human groups and these negligible differences reflect a fairly recent history of reproductive isolation—America and many other Western nations have shamefully demeaned, enslaved and oppressed non-Whites for centuries. But remember, centuries are fractions of milliseconds on Darwin’s clock, and whichever epidermal color has the upper hand today wouldn’t necessarily have it that way in another place and time. In fact, the deck of natural selection would have been stacked heavily against the melanin-impoverished people in sun-baked, southern Africa for a long time after our species’ initial appearance on the human stage there. For our African ancestors to have found someone of lighter skin (and lighter hair and eyes) more attractive than someone with a comparatively darker complexion may not have been as catastrophic as their being attracted to members of another species, but it still would have been a rather unhealthy strategy in terms of their overall genetic success. The paler one is, after all, the more susceptible he or she is to developing deadly melanomas and other skin-related ailments due to everyday sun exposure, and this is especially true for people living close to the Equator, where photoprotection has always been—at least since humans lost their fur—vitally important for survival.

Interracial dating is a mating scenario, however, that our ancestors simply would never have encountered. Cases of albinism in ancient Africa would have occurred just as they do today, but they wouldn’t have been frequent enough to significantly alter the gene pool. Furthermore, these albinos would have run an extremely high risk of developing skin cancer; and African albinos today face horrible social obstacles and are severely ostracized—unspeakably so, in many nations. But the critical point here is this: the phenomenon of very light and very dark people coexisting in a single geographic space is an evolutionarily novel development for our species.

This is because variations in skin color reflect many millennia of unobservable changes occurring within geographically circumscribed human populations, changes resulting from our species’ slow and partial migration out of Africa and its subsequent settlement and adaptation northward into the chillier, foreign terrain of Asia and Europe. Among other physical changes, the selection pressure for darker skin relaxed under those gloomy Baltic skies; there’s even evidence that nature began to instead favor genetic variants of pale skin in the lowest solar-radiating conditions, since reduced melanin levels actually promoted Vitamin D-absorption during those long, bleak winter months. Having lived in Northern Ireland for the last five years, I can assure you of two things: the sun is a rare sight in Belfast, and Black people rarer. (Probably as rare as a ginger Irishman in Zimbabwe.)

But back to attractiveness, if we insist on discussing race and beauty in evolutionary terms, it’s critical to understand that our perceptions are moulded not only by natural selection at the species level, but also at the individual level with our unique experiences, such as early erotic encounters, cultural ideals communicated to us through media, interactions with family and friends, and so on. This doesn’t mean that culture fills our big, blank-slate brains with invented notions of beauty willy-nilly; it clearly operates within a constrained evolutionary framework. For example, it’s an empirical question, but I suspect if you raised a kid on a desert island and inundated him with sexualized images and positive attitudes regarding a newly idealized female form—say, women with primordial dwarfism or ladies in their eighties—with men lusting over these females and women clambering to the salons to look just like them, the child would become a “sexual deviant” as an adult, preferring females of average height and somewhat younger women. In other words, yes, culture plays an obvious and important role in defining idealized beauty for people in a given society, but there are also obvious, evolutionarily defined limits to its powers of suggestion.

When it comes to skin color and the societal friction that characterizes race relations, the most plausible evolutionary account is that we consciously or unconsciously exploit this surface cue as a way to rapidly demarcate ingroup and outgroup members. It is abundantly clear that, since time immemorial, human societies have waged wars and been in conflict with other neighboring groups competing for the same limited resources. In the ancestral past, even the slightest physical, behavioral, or linguistic difference between camps would have served as a heuristic to help determine who was “one of us” and who was “one of them.” Again, evolutionarily, people of different skin colors would not have come into contact in the same geographic space (the divergent evolution of melanin-producing cells between human populations meant that, for the vast majority of our ancestral history, our ancestors would have never seen or known of another person with a skin color dramatically different from their own), other signals included accents and dialects, customs, gaits, fashion styles, and so on. In Northern Ireland, racism is subtly exuded by people trying to suss out the Protestant versus Catholic countenance of surnames, neighborhoods, word pronunciations, and facial features. One of the most startling pieces of evidence demonstrating the innateness of ingroup favoritism, reported a few years ago by psychologist Katherine Kinzler of the University of Chicago, is that, regardless of their nationality, ten-month-old infants actually shun adult playmates with foreign accents and prefer to interact with native speakers.

So it’s only in recent centuries, when the human animal found itself rather suddenly face-to-face with those of an entirely different hue, that this especially salient cue triggered our species’ more general pre-existing mechanism for ingroup- and outgroup-member demarcation. Being “color blind” is a beautiful idea, but unfortunately our retinas are sensitive to light of different wavelengths, and our visual systems cannot help but to process the color of people’s skin. My little eight-year-old nephew, Gianni, who lives in a fairly rural area in Ohio that is disadvantaged of ethnic diversity and multiculturalism, was telling me the other day about “this black girl” at school whom he was quite fond of. My sister, listening in, corrected him, noting that the girl was, in fact, Indian. “Fine,” he started over, “this brown girl …” (To which I gave him an emergency lesson in the etiquette of racial discourse). He’s clumsy with his politically correct language, granted, but he’s also quite smitten with this girl, which I see as a very positive sign for his future race relations—and love life.

Actually, many sociologists believe that the best barometer of a society’s race relations lies in its practices regarding interracial romantic relationships. And on this note, the dynamics between Blacks and Whites are still embarrassingly rocky here in the U.S. In an article published last year in the Journal of Black Studies, Richard Lewis and Joanne Ford-Robertson of the University of Texas reviewed the interracial marriage trends between the years 1980 and 2006. Using data from the U.S. Census Bureau, these authors found that, although the percentage of interracial marriages rose significantly over this twenty-six-year period, from 3% of all marriages in the US in 1980 to approximately 8% in 2006, this change is owed primarily to increases in the frequency of legal unions between Hispanics and non-Hispanics.

“It is interesting to note,” write Lewis and Ford-Robertson:

… that the percentage of interracial marriages not involving a Black spouse has increased from 69% of all interracial unions to nearly 78% over the investigation period. During the same period, the percentage associated with Black/White marriages made up 26% of all interracial marriages in 1980, and they declined to less than 18% by 2006. [italics added]

Even after accounting for changes in racial composition of the population, the least common of all the many different possible configurations of interracial marriages were those that included an African-American partner. Precisely why Blacks are not intermarrying with other races more frequently remains the subject of considerable controversy. Although public attitudes regarding interracial relationships have been on the upswing ever since 1967, when the Supreme Court struck down the last sickly anti-miscegenation laws, and such relationships are now perfectly legal, Black-White relationships, especially, are still extraordinarily rare in our society.

When they do occur, it’s much more often a Black men with a White woman, rather than the reverse. This pattern is often interpreted within a sociological theory of “upward mobility”—as a strategic means for Black men to obtain status in an implicitly color-graded society such as the US. Numerous investigators have examined the many difficulties encountered by those in interracial relationships, challenges stemming from nasty racial stereotypes involving sexuality, hostile societal attitudes, and disapproval by family and friends. Hunter College sociologist Erica Chito Childs, for example, went more than skin-deep in her analysis of many Black women’s disdain for Black men seeing White women. “For single young women,” writes Childs, “a Black man’s choice to be with a White woman is seen as a specific betrayal of Black women because the decision to date interracially does not mean just choosing White women but also rejecting Black women.”

Childs cites several young "angry Black women" and their thoughts about interracial relationships:

* “Blacks just like to see other Blacks, especially Black men who are successful, to stay Black, to be with a Black woman … It’s just about respecting and applauding those who don’t go interracial.”

* “I don’t know how or why someone could ever get over the racism of Whites to date a White person.”

* “As a Black woman, it is difficult enough to have to deal with Whites who [act] as if [Black] is inferior, but it is even harder to have your own men act like White is better and systematically choose White women over you; it is hard not to get angry because it feels as if no one values your worth as a woman.”

Certainly, the terrible residue of the embattled relationship between Blacks and Whites in this country, when combined with the evolutionary factors described previously, remains a major hurdle—indeed, our strained past may well be the main obstacle in our moving beyond the staid, monochromatic dating economy as it’s reflected in the census data. Still, there are also many legitimate biological questions—not only sociological ones, though they’re of course central to these discussions—that do remain. Many social scientists, for instance, believe that the “I’m just not attracted to those of other races” defense is only a thinly veiled form of symbolic racism. Yet it also seems plausible to me that, racist or not, this comment does in fact represent many people’s true sexual arousal patterns.

That humans tend to be homogamous creatures—orienting romantically and sexually toward prospective partners who resemble us physically—is well-established in social psychology. Ask yourself this: When you look at porn—and I’m talking to you, grandmotherly readers of Scientific American—do you stick with your own race, or do you prefer another? There are certainly individual differences in this regard. I, for one, find myself hideous and prefer those who look the least like me as possible. My partner, Juan, is Mexican. Actually, I’ve never thought of it quite this way before, but I can count the number of men I’ve been with on one hand; each digit, starting with my thumb, represents an Asian, an Indian, an African American and a Latino. We’ll save my pinkie finger for that White gentleman from Cambridge.

But I’m an anomaly. One study by Hungarian psychologist Tamas Bereczkei and his colleagues even found that, when their parents’ faces were morphed unknowingly with that of a stranger’s, people judged the morphed image as being significantly more attractive than the face of the stranger alone. For women, the more emotionally supportive the father had been in her childhood, the stronger her attraction to adult males that physically resembled him. Especially interesting was the fact that adult females who’d been adopted in early childhood showed this effect for their adopted father, which led the authors to posit a model of sexual imprinting occurring during early development. “These results,” reason the authors, “suggest that mate choice depends on physical and emotional exposure to the opposite-sex parent, as the sexual imprinting model predicts. In accordance with this theory, individuals shape a mental model of their opposite-sex parent’s appearance and search for a partner who possesses certain traits.” Given that so many American children, of so many races, have such minimal—if any—positive interactions with adults of other races, it’s not terribly difficult to extrapolate Bereczkei’s sexual imprinting model to the pathetic interracial marriage statistics we see today.

Unfortunately, because it’s such an incendiary and emotionally laden topic, and because egregious missteps by sensationalists such as Satoshi Kanazawa frighten off those who might conduct controlled, rigorous studies that are informed by genuine curiosity rather than racism (that is possible, of course), we know nothing—absolutely nothing, zilch, nada—about the development of people’s sexual attraction to those of other races, how this connects to contemporary race relations in the US, and least of all how these factors can be understood within an evolutionary framework.

Image: from This Next

About The Author: Want more Bering in Mind? Follow Jesse on Twitter @JesseBering, visit, or friend Jesse on Facebook. Jesse is the author of newly released book, The Belief Instinct: The Psychology of Souls, Destiny and the Meaning of Life (W. W. Norton).

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  1. 1. JasonMN 9:55 am 05/31/2011

    In this post, it’s difficult to disentangle the overwhelming moralistic agenda from whatever falsifiable claims might be being made.

    In this post from OKCupid, black women receive the lowest response rates across the board, when they contact a man; also, they respond at the highest rates, when a man contacts them.

    Link to this
  2. 2. c.harvey 10:39 am 05/31/2011

    @JasonMN: "In this post, it’s difficult to disentangle the overwhelming moralistic agenda from whatever falsifiable claims might be being made."

    What, exactly, is the "overwhelming moralistic agenda" being made here?

    Link to this
  3. 3. davetrindle 12:22 pm 05/31/2011

    Why study this? What possible value could it have? The likelihood of some kind of measurement error, study-design error, misuse of statistical tools (which is epidemic in our "scientific" studies) is near 100%. "Beauty" is never "objectively" measured, although you may have "systematically" measured it? How do you know there are no cultural biases in your measurement system? How many participants did you sample to establish your measure? Something like this would need thousands, if not tens of thousands stratified by age, gender, nationality, culture, socio-economic status, mental status, exposure to media, time-of-day, method-used-to-attract-participants, etc, etc, etc. I am willing to bet you didn’t do that. Even if you did, it would still be questionable. Even the word "attractive" is far from uniquely defined.
    Is the only criteria for studies like this being picked up in the news that it be provocative? Your type of science is the worst America has to offer, and "Psychology Today" competes for audience with "Cosmo," and such, certainly not Scientific American. God bless every beautiful black woman and girl…

    ps You’re ugly.

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  4. 4. c.harvey 12:27 pm 05/31/2011

    @davetrindle: I’m very confused. Who are your comments addressed to? It’s like you’re writing in response to the original Psychology Today article by Kanazawa and not the article here in SciAm that you’re commenting on.

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  5. 5. Phillygurl 1:38 pm 05/31/2011

    Seriously dude, Serseriously. Why do people keep citing okay cupid? Whenever I was on the internet dating cites, I didn’t even have a picture up and I ALWAYS received emails from men- white, asian, etc. How many black men and women are even on these cites. When I went on I was specifically looking for black and latino men and I would come across maybe 3 out of every 20 men in my area who fit that description. You know darn well that there are a hell of a lot more White people on these cites than anyone else and chances are they are generally looking for other whites because that is who they feel the most comfortable with. Why don’t these white publications do a study on the amount of mulattos, quadroons, and octaroons, that were present in the U.S, prior to 1950′s. That would be a real test of attraction for black women, not some dumb ass Ok Cupid study.

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  6. 6. E-boy 3:33 pm 05/31/2011

    White publications? Really? You’re actually going to refute Jason’s ridiculous claims with blatant racism of your own?

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  7. 7. mrjeremiahross 4:56 pm 05/31/2011

    1) Let’s take two actresses approx the same age, who haven’t really over-sexualized themselves, and compare. Straight men; would you complain if you could be married to either Angela Basset or Michelle Pheiffer (But can’t choose which one)? My guess is that neither would be kicked out of bed for eating crackers.

    Sorry… that is as scientific as I can get right now ;)

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  8. 8. scilo 5:56 pm 05/31/2011

    Are we missing something here?
    Body shape, cultural tastes and upbringing, pherimones, social attitudes.
    I can’t speak for your neighborhood, but in mine the black men are much more agressive around white women. Holding one while eyeing another.
    Of course any racial observation is generalized.
    Beauty comes from within, what is documented here, is outward lust.
    Beauty pagents are really lust fests.
    Even Jimmy Durante had a wife!
    Micky Rooney had how many lovers? The man looked like road kill with legs!

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  9. 9. kaebomb 6:53 pm 05/31/2011

    Very nice analysis of this topic and summary of its research Jesse. You are right, it is "incendiary." Like you, I am a white person more attracted to other races than my own, especially black. I have attributed this to living in an unusually racially heterogeneous neighborhood (with the exception of whites); however, on reading about Bereczkei’s study, I am thinking maybe it’s because my ethnicity is northern Scandinavian, whose facial features are considered "exotic." While I view your article as balanced, I am dumbfounded by the results of the research you cite, and it makes me wonder if the researchers aren’t somehow interpreting the results with their own biases–are they mostly white researchers? Almost all black men and many white men whom I know think black women are more beautiful than white–and actually, I do too. In general, their legs are longer, bodies curvier, hair thicker, nails stronger, and cheekbones more prominent. I perceive my race to be less attractive than the African races, and although I never have a shortage of white suitors, and men of all races check me out a lot, a man of African decent has never been attracted to me enough to pursue me.

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  10. 10. gbrit 7:38 pm 05/31/2011

    Brilliant! article. DUMB! comments (with exception of one before this.)

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  11. 11. Raghuvanshi1 10:56 pm 05/31/2011

    Why not Kanazawa study the slavery period of U.S.When most of white people kept black women as a mistress.Why white people attracted beauty, shape of black women?In young age black women is more beautiful and attractive then white girl.Her shape her young age show more enthusiasm than any girl of world.Only poverty and illiteracy make her incapable to compete with white girl.

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  12. 12. ealonso 3:26 pm 06/1/2011

    I have an alternative theory regarding why many people may balk at interracial relationships. Sure, evolutionarily, we want "survival of the fittest" and we choose mates who can provide genetic benefits to our children that we don’t think we can provide with our own gene pool. However, I think there’s a competing desire to also pass on our own genes – to ensure the immortality of our up-to-now successful lineage. Therefore I think that there’s a strong sense in many humans to want their children to ressemble themselves. I’d also posit (no research done by me here, I’m no expert) that evolutionarily, fathers might be more interested in caring for children who look like them, because prior to DNA testing, there was no real way of knowing the little tyke was yours. In that case, it would behoove women to choose men who look somewhat similar to them, to reduce risk of their children looking way too unlike their partners, and therefore being abandoned by said partner.

    Whenever a child is born, there is a lot of effort put into "who does he/she look like??" and many comments made about "she has her mother’s eyes" or "he has his dad’s nose". It must therefore be important for us to identify our children as being a by-product of ourslelves.

    The problem with skin colour is that it’s a pretty big and hard to fail to notice trait, and can sometimes eclipse other traits, like the shape of features (eyes, nose, ears, face, etc). I’m only positing here, I may be wrong, but a white person may have a harder time feeling a physical/genetic connection to their child if their child has a much darker skin tone, unfortunately. It might be less stark for someone darker to have a slightly lighter skin-toned child, and the chances their children end up being very white are much slimmer, but I posit that if that were to occur, it might also cause a disconnect between parent and child as well.

    Personally, I feel mixed children are way more beautiful, but hey, I’m half asian half european, so maybe there’s a bias there. I also know I look nothing like anyone in my family, and my mom contents herself with noting that I really must be her daughter since my character is so similar to hers.

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  13. 13. Diesel67 8:32 pm 06/1/2011

    Gee, I was always more attractive to muscular, athletic women than to the toothpicks and jelly rolls that model expensive clothing, and in America muscular athletic women are mostly black. At any rate, gentlemen may prefer blondes but they often end up marrying brunettes. Just relax and enjoy humanity’s pizzazz.

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  14. 14. Diesel67 8:33 pm 06/1/2011

    Sorry, attractED to muscular, athletic women.

    Note to webmaster (or webmistress, as the case may be):
    Give as the ability to edit our posts

    Link to this
  15. 15. 1spirit 11:46 am 06/2/2011

    What statistics say about the average appeal of one race is irrelevant. People are individuals.

    Link to this
  16. 16. mrjeremiahross 12:43 pm 06/2/2011

    Well, I admit that my comment was tongue in cheek; but essentially beauty subjective (otherwise very few of us, myself included, would ever get married); and we do probably look for different physical archetypes based upon which ethnic background a person appears to possess. The Actress comparison was meant to demonstrate that (Both are very elegant women, but with starkly different features that do not simply end at skin pigmentation) I feel sorry for the "researchers" who reached biased conclusions; the world is a very dull place if you only have one concept of beauty.

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  17. 17. Michael M 5:49 pm 06/2/2011

    It took Jess a while to work beyond his emotional response to assortative mating!
    Read well into the work; he hits some valid points.

    However, this being SA, I didn’t expect to read quite so bloggish an article, Jesse. Your preferences and defensive "moral" outrage makes for stimulating content.

    Jesse hinted that the races differentiated in Eurasia. Most of our evolutionary skin change, as well as some fat depositional changes, and other phenotypic characteristics, occurred in that vast area.
    There, before European voyage/invasions of India/SE Asia we find a slow transition of characteristics when traveling in a consistent direction.

    Heuristics associated with vastly different races were perhaps useful, as groups displaying such may have been invaders and slavers.
    Friendly groups of highly differing races were unlikely to have been encountered.
    Saturated populations (which may have quickly occurred, due to our escape as an introduced species from co-evolved predators and parasites) tend to diminish travel on any scale, except for rapacious ends.
    During and previous to saturation, small groups generally never ran into groups much different, and only a few anomalous travelers (or slaves)could be seen to be significantly other.

    Female outbreeding is a characteristic of many species,including ours; some of you may remember the hilarious t-shirt test studies supporting female preference for genetically differing males. The moralizing in commentary can be regarded as merely confabulation covering that useful trait.

    All in all, the politicization, moralizing, and anecdote referring to individual experience indicate that quite nonscientifically-educated individuals feel or wish to pretend that characteristics we share due to evolved wisdom of genes, are subject to "moral" dispute.

    We do not make this mistake when studying other animals, and certainly not plants, which leads me to note that tree species cannot well survive without symbiotes of familiar soils. Those artificially transplanted among others of the same species more adapted to their specific land, experience high mortality. Point? It’s not a moral issue, but one of evolved seeking of adaptive traits.

    Of course, although I prefer blondes, Northern Chinese and Koreans don’t; the only white hair they had seen in vast time, was that of the very old.
    Yet all the blonde women everywhere tested, tend to prefer "tall, DARK, and" testosterone-assisted male characteristics. This is possibly due to hard-wiring in of whitish hair being associated with age, as well.

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  18. 18. Michael M 5:57 pm 06/2/2011

    Racially heterogenous neighborhoods are a recent product of species overbloom, and are serving to diminish specious or invidious (the word means envious!) differences. So we mix.

    Science is a method of inquiry, using largely statistical methods to test hypotheses.

    As such it is unseemly for the untrained to claim that certain sciences are less so than others.
    Disciplines that attempt to isolate themselves, or that are indulged in in a manner which seeks too soon to apply science, such as economics or sociology, can lose predictive success. As a result, too many confounds occur, when terms are not rigorously critiqued and defined.
    That is merely a sign that the science is young. The term used to describe those who denigrate the scientific method in others sciences is "physics envy."
    So such commentors would seem to wish to make invidious distinction between their idol, and other sciences.

    But science changes, it evolves, learns, adapts. Is refusal to do so oneself, a sign of participation, or, rather, rejection? SA has an article up on hippocampal atrophy for your entertainment and gratification. You are not alone.

    Link to this

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