Something in our culture is creating a lot of naive biological determinists

Here we go again. The Guardian has a profile of a guy who claims to be able to tell your sexual orientation from a photograph. It’s all bullshit, reminiscent of that Faception nonsense.

But his audience would also have been intrigued by his work on the use of AI to detect psychological traits. Weeks after his trip to Moscow, Kosinski published a controversial paper in which he showed how face-analysing algorithms could distinguish between photographs of gay and straight people. As well as sexuality, he believes this technology could be used to detect emotions, IQ and even a predisposition to commit certain crimes. Kosinski has also used algorithms to distinguish between the faces of Republicans and Democrats, in an unpublished experiment he says was successful – although he admits the results can change “depending on whether I include beards or not”.

He’s a psychologist. Everyone who has taken a psychology course must have heard of Clever Hans, the counting horse. You would say a number to Clever Hans, and he would pound his hoof on the ground the right number of times. He must know how to count! But no, it turns out that Clever Hans just knew to watch his owner, who was the one who could count, and who would change his posture or signal his relief when the horse reached the desired number. The whole point of that story was a lesson in interpreting your observations: you may think the subject is doing one thing, but he or she is actually doing something entirely different.

For a wonderfully thorough take down of Kosinski, read this article which exposes the flaws in his work. Kosinski claims he’s detecting a biological difference, that physiognomy and genes are somehow connected to psychology and behavior, so you can scan one and get an accurate assessment of the other. But he’s really pulling a Clever Hans, making a faulty association between the variables he wants to link, and ignoring a host of other variables where the real connection is being made. And those other variables are all culture, not biology.

In summary, we have shown how the obvious differences between lesbian or gay and straight faces in selfies relate to grooming, presentation, and lifestyle — that is, differences in culture, not in facial structure. These differences include:

  • Makeup
  • Eyeshadow
  • Facial hair
  • Glasses
  • Selfie angle
  • Amount of sun exposure.

We’ve demonstrated that just a handful of yes/no questions about these variables can do nearly as good a job at guessing orientation as supposedly sophisticated facial recognition AI. Further, the current generation of facial recognition remains sensitive to head pose and facial expression. Therefore — at least at this point — it’s hard to credit the notion that this AI is in some way superhuman at “outing” us based on subtle but unalterable details of our facial structure.

The Guardian article also points out another weird bias in Kosinski’s work.

This is where Kosinski’s work strays into biological determinism. While he does not deny the influence of social and environmental factors on our personalities, he plays them down. At times, what he says seems eerily reminiscent of Lombroso, who was critical of the idea that criminals had “free will”: they should be pitied rather than punished, the Italian argued, because – like monkeys, cats and cuckoos – they were “programmed to do harm”.

“I don’t believe in guilt, because I don’t believe in free will,” Kosinski tells me, explaining that a person’s thoughts and behaviour “are fully biological, because they originate in the biological computer that you have in your head”. On another occasion he tells me, “If you basically accept that we’re just computers, then computers are not guilty of crime. Computers can malfunction. But then you shouldn’t blame them for it.” The professor adds: “Very much like: you don’t, generally, blame dogs for misbehaving.”

I don’t believe in free will either, but for completely different reasons: I see it as a malformed question built on a foundation of dualism, a delusion that “you” are something independent of the physical, biological “you”. But I don’t flop down into the lazy thinking of biological determinism; that “I” am a construct of a meat computer does not imply that I am robotically fixed and incapable of change and growth, or cannot make decisions based on rational forethought or emotional desire. The real “I” is the whole, inseparable from glands and experience and calculation.

Likewise, biological determinism is bunk. Who we are is not simply a product of built-in genetic factors — genes respond to environment. It’s all one inseparable gemisch, and anyone who tries to argue that genes drive behavior is a fool. It’s always genes entangled in history and environment.


  1. says

    You don’t understand: They’re using COMPUTERS. This is no ordinary Gaydar! I’m sure if you gave them a lot of money, they could find a way to bring nanobots or fractals or cold fusion or whatever the keenest cutting edge tech is. This is hot stuff! “A power so great it can be used only for good or evil!”

  2. cartomancer says

    It is quite interesting to see the differences in grooming and presentation practices. I had no idea such differences existed. One wonders how they vary from culture to culture.

  3. cartomancer says

    Though, thinking about it, I do remember that it took a very long time to convince a visiting gay Canadian that all the well-to-do middle-class English people at my college were just English, and not gay. Well, apart from me. He seemed to mistake the mannerisms of middle-class English people for what in his culture were the mannerisms of gay people.

    I also recall a gay English friend reporting, on his way back from a trip round France, Spain and Italy, that the young men there behaved in ways that made him think they were all gay, when clearly they weren’t.

    For my own part, I find it next to impossible to tell. It took me ten years to realise my best friend was gay, and I’d been painfully in love with him for three of those.

  4. consciousness razor says

    “I don’t believe in guilt, because I don’t believe in free will,”

    Just plain nonsense.

  5. Ed Seedhouse says

    consciousness razor@9:

    “I don’t believe in guilt, because I don’t believe in free will,”

    Just plain nonsense.

    Yeah, this person seems to believe “no free will” equals “determinism”. Of course it’s perfectly possible not to believe in free will without believing in determinism, as our host has explained.

    But the (adjective redacted) in question seems to claim that he has no free will but *chooses* not to believe in guilt. Hardly seems coherent to me…

  6. consciousness razor says

    Yeah, this person seems to believe “no free will” equals “determinism”.

    Well, there are compatibilists, who’d certainly contest that claim. However, I wouldn’t have just tossed it aside as nonsense. It’s not so easy to see how they could be compatible (at least when understood properly). It takes a fair bit of careful thinking, to say the least, which of course guys like this aren’t inclined to do.

    The idea that guilt has anything to do with free will (or the absence of it) … which is exactly what I quoted … that’s what I was talking about. Psych dude should try cracking open a philosophy book, at least once, before he starts jabbering about it. But since he’s peddling what amounts to phrenology, in his own field of supposed expertise, my expectations for him might be set a little too high.

    Of course it’s perfectly possible not to believe in free will without believing in determinism, as our host has explained.

    PZ only discussed biological determinism, which is more or less believing that genetics does way more things than it actually does. That’s obviously silly. The fine details aren’t so clear-cut for ordinary people like me. But it’s incredibly easy to point in basically any direction, at “the environment,” and make the case that it has all sorts of relevant effects.

    Just plain old determinism (“hard determinism”) is something else altogether. Nothing PZ said — about us changing and growing, making decisions in various ways and for various reasons, etc. — had any bearing on that question.

  7. Kandosii says

    Another problem with people like this guy is how much their crap detracts from the actual work being done on the genetics of much more basal behaviors: the highly stereotyped movements of flies grooming or fighting, for instance, or the timing and consistency of the circadian rhythm. I know someone who’s doing really interesting work trying to figure out whether/how much those low-complexity behaviors are genetically controlled in animals with more complicated nervous systems. It’s a daunting task, because you need to assay subjects for hours or days at a time. There’s a real utility for machine learning there, so you can have a reproducible and consistent observer of simple, visible behavior.

    …But then there’s these guys.

  8. says

    you don’t have to be a dualist to believe in free will. idealist for example tend to believe in free will.

    Anyway, all research in to identifying queer people, legit or not (NOT!), as well as looking for any sort of biological basis for LGBT+ folks existing should be immediately stopped, defunded and not talked about. That the the real issue here. That they are still looking for a way to tag us.

    it’s repugnant under normal circumstances. Under Trump? it’s going to get people killed.

  9. blf says

    It’s all bullshit, reminiscent of that Faception nonsense.

    It is not merely “reminiscent” of the face fraud, it is directly connected:

    But when I press Kosinski for examples of how psychology-detecting AI is being used by governments, he repeatedly falls back on an obscure Israeli startup, Faception. The company provides software that scans passports, visas and social-media profiles, before spitting out scores that categorise people according to several personality types. On its website, Faception lists eight such classifiers, including “White-Collar Offender”, “High IQ”, “Paedophile” and “Terrorist”. […]

    He is reported as then attempting to hand-wave away his connection, and trying to get the Guraniad to suppose some of his other connections:

    In one of our final conversations, Kosinski tells me he shouldn’t have talked about his visit to Moscow, because his hosts asked him not to. It would not be elegant to mention it in the Guardian, he says, and besides, it is an irrelevant fact. I point out that he already left a fairly big clue on Facebook, where he posted an image of himself onboard a helicopter with the caption: “Taking off to give a talk for Prime Minister Medvedev.” He later changed his privacy settings: the photo was no longer public, but for “friends only”.

    And as pointed-out previously, including in the OP’s linked-to article, Michal Kosinski is connected with SCL / Cambridge Analytica, who are some of the Russian trolls that hacked both brexit and the State’s supposed-“election” of hair furor.

  10. gijoel says

    I could have sworn Eric Stonestreet was gay, but he’s as straight as an arrow. Who would have thought stereotypes didn’t reflect reality.