First up, PZ ably tackles a Psychology Today blogpost written by Satoshi Kanazawa, an evolutionary psychologist from the London School of Economics. The blogpost has been vanished, but lives on there at Scribd. The article poses and attempts to answer the question, "Why are black women less physically attractive than other women?"
For a little background, the basic data comes from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health). One curious element of the study is that the subjects were measured for their attractiveness on a five point scale from very unattractive to very attractive. Three different interviewers made this assessment over the 7 year course of the study. Even more curious is how Kanazawa describes this:
"Add Health measures the physical attractiveness of its respondents both objectively and subjectively. At the end of each interview, the interviewer rates the physical attractiveness of the respondent objectively on the following five-point scale" [my emphasis]
Now, I'll grant that the 1-5 written down on a sheet of paper or a scantron form or something is an objective datum, but I hardly think that we can count this as an objective measurement of physical attractiveness. And averaging together three such numbers does not somehow make it objective. This is some horrible form of scientismism -- mistaking a mark on paper for an objective measure of aesthetics. The subjective measure he refers to is a self-assessment on the same five point scale. I'm not sure why that mark on paper is subjective while the other three marks are objective.
This is not to say the data are meaningless. I think a very interesting experiment would be to allow these students to rate their peers, and then look at how different racial groups assessed themselves and others. Of course, what this scientific experiment would tell us is something about people's preferences, not objective beauty.
Coincidentally, Dr. Pookie and I saw Good Hair earlier this week. I had expected Chris Rock to make more of a joke out of the whole topic of black people's hair, but though it's often funny, it's really a very well-made documentary with a lot of insight into the intersection of hair and African American culture. It may suffer some from wanting to end with a big bang at a hairstyling competition (which is fun enough) but the better part of the documentary is just watching Raven, Salt-n-Pepa, Ice-T, the man-on-the-street, and the woman-in-the-salon just talking about their hair.
The other Pharyngula story that caught my eye centered on this anti gay marriage propaganda video. The gimmick is that it suggests that 'redefining marriage' is something as ludicrous as 'redefining gravity' to 'go both ways'. Once again, there is a confusion of objective and subjective. Yes, legislating that gravity point the other direction is stupid, because legislation cannot change the objective fact of gravity. But legislating that gay marriage be legal is not stupid, because legal things are, in fact, changed by legislation. That's what legislation is for.
The two versions of idiocy remind me of my diatribe against the scientismists and antiscientists. It is scientismism to think that subjective judgments of beauty are objective. The anti-gay marriage crowd basically took as their concept my example of antiscientism that gravity should be reversed so that penguins can fly (because clearly they ought to fly). They have confused an ought-thing (Ought gay marriage be allowed or not?) with an is-thing (Is gravity up or down?).
To step back a bit and delve into my developing philosophy, I don't consider myself a moral relativist, since that doesn't define my position unambiguously, and what most of the culture warriors sneer at when they say 'moral relativism' is indeed sneer-worthy. I think it's clearer to say that I'm a moral subjectivist. There are no objective moral facts. Morality, like aesthetics, is subjective. This does not mean that morality doesn't matter and 'anything goes'. Quite the opposite. Morality matters to subjects, i.e. people. Recognizing that my aesthetic preference for Iron Maiden over Perry Como is a subjective one does not suddenly nullify that preference. I don't suddenly like all music equally, or start committing acts of crooning. These judgments may be subjective, but more importantly (and part and parcel of their subjectivity) they are mine. I am the subject experiencing these judgments; what could matter more to me than what I sincerely think? Morality is no different. I am the subject who experiences these judgments. The universe doesn't give a rat's fart about Botticelli or rape. People care about these things. This does not mean they are unimportant; it means they are important in the only way that it makes sense for them to be important -- to people.
I've had a few loopy ideas about fiction that you will now be subjected to. True or false: "Sherlock Holmes lived at 221B Baker Street." Of course, really, Holmes didn't live anywhere at all, so he couldn't have lived at 221B Baker Street. So it's objectively false. And yet we can simultaneously understand that the statement is 'fictionally true'. I find very persuasive the argument that all of mathematics should also be considered fictionally true. We do not directly observe numbers. Three rocks are three rocks; they are not 3. "Three" and "3" are not 3 either. Even 3 isn't the-idea-that-3-stands-for. 3 is a character in a play called mathematics, and 3 is odd in the same way that we know where Holmes lives. Mathematicians write their little fan-fictions with these characters. Some write Euclidean fanfics, while others write non-Euclidean fanfics, and so on, with slightly differents sets of characters and what is accepted as canon. If you follow the rules of the canon correctly, you can determine truths that are true in a particular fictional setting, just as the Baker Street Irregulars pick through the canon to discover 'new' truths about Holmes. The same would also be true of logic. Different canonical sets of logical axioms produce different logics and different truths in these different fictional settings.
I have tentatively come to the opinion that morality -- ought statements -- can also be viewed through a lens of fiction. "One ought not to murder." can be translated to "In my fanfic of the perfect world, people don't murder each other." Through a pretty shabby verbal trick, an 'ought' statement has been converted into an absolutely true statement, albeit one that's true of a fictional world. And the fact that the statement begins with 'in my fanfic' is the telltale that it is a subjective truth. But perhaps the self-evident and absolute truth of the statement in our own personal fictional world convinces us (incorrectly) that the statement has objective truth as well. And we get angry and frustrated with people who disagree, just as we would with someone who insisted that Holmes lived at 10 Downing Street.
But really these are the stories we're telling ourselves. On the plus side, collectively, we're telling better moral stories than we did 50, 500, or 5000 years ago. Or so it seems to me.