More Cavalier Foolishness

On reading how Algorithms associating appearance and criminality have a dark past  (which, despite what I am about to say, includes much of value and interest) we eventually come to this:

“The most contentious question seems to be whether reinventing physiognomy is fair game for the purposes of ‘pure academic discussion’. One could object on empirical grounds: eugenicists of the past such as Galton and Lombroso ultimately failed to find facial features that predisposed(sic*1) a person to criminality. That’s because there are no such connections to be found. “(emphasis added*2).

It is true that statistical analysis (eg by Leon Kamin and others) suggests the following assertion.

” psychologists studying the heritability of intelligence, such as Cyril Burt and Philippe Rushton, had to play fast and loose with their data to manufacture correlations between skull size, race and IQ. “

But it is wishful thinking to follow that up with

“If there were anything to discover, presumably the many people who have tried over the years wouldn’t have come up dry.”

It may be very likely, and it is certainly something to be hoped for, but it is absolutely not “presumable” unless one wants to run the risk of being unprepared for an unexpected and unwanted fact.


*1 – It would be nice if people with doctorates in philosophy could bother to use words properly. A predisposition is a causal tendency which is due primarily to internal rather than external factors. But all that the physiogonomists and phrenologists ever claimed to identify was correlation (perhaps with the suggestion that the physical features and behaviour arose from a pair of genetic causes that often occur together) which might (if true) justify the claim that the features in question indicated a predisposition but not that they actually predispose the individual. One can in fact imagine a causal dependency in the sense that someone with unfortunate features might be treated by society as likely to exhibit bad behaviour and end up responding to that expectation by performing as expected. But even that would not be an example of predisposition as the causal mechanism would be external.

*2 – As indicated in the note above, I think it highly unlikely that any true behavioural predisposition is actually caused by facial features. But neither my nor anyone else’s failure to imagine any such connection does NOT justify the claim that no such causal connection exists. And on the looser question of correlations that might indicate a predisposition, denying the possibility of something we hope not to see just because we haven’t seen it yet is not just wrong but dangerously foolish.


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