Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Nick Wade is eeeeevil   posted by p-ter @ 9/19/2007 07:17:00 PM

Nicholas Wade of the New York Times is, without a doubt, one of the best science reporters in America. Apart from his writing, which is of course excellent, he shows an impressively deep knowledge of his chosen subject (genetics)-- enough to write an excellent book on the topic and to effectively communicate subtle aspects of research (when he mentioned statistical power in a recent article, I may have choked up a little bit. It was really that beautiful).

So if you were, say, writing an article criticizing the coverage of genetics in the media, Wade should be absolutely the last person on the list of people to mention. However, a new article in Nature Reviews Genetics takes him to task for one of his uses of he word "race". Needless to say, I think it's absurd.

From the article:
An example of the constant slippage of race terms is provided by Nicholas Wade, who was a strong journalistic propagator of Neil Risch's claim that there are five major human races that are defined by genetic clusters, specifically, Africans, Caucasians, Asians, Pacific Islanders, and Native Americans. However, when reporting on recent diabetes research, Wade includes as his list of races, "African-Americans, Latinos, American Indians, and Asian-Americans." The social grouping we call Hispanics is not one of Risch et al.' s categories, and it does not share a stable, historically deep genetic cluster.
First, perhaps I'm being overly sensitive about tone here, but on first reading this passage seemed to make Risch and Wade sound, I don't know...a little sinister. The "claim" being "propagated" by Wade is the simple fact that there is some clustering of genetic diversity according to broad geographic regions. Risch has long advocated (convincingly, in my opinion) that this genetic diversity not be ignored in medicine. Perhaps the public is interested in hearing about this research.

Second, the list of "races" given by the author is a little silly. Risch has never made some kind of statement about which genetic clusters are "races" and which are not. In fact, I'm guessing the author of this paper hasn't read much of Risch's work. In a 2002 paper, he does indeed write, referring to a number of studies on the genetics of race:
Effectively, these population genetic studies have recapitulated the classical definition of races based on continental ancestry - namely African, Caucasian (Europe and Middle East), Asian, Pacific Islander (for example, Australian, New Guinean and Melanesian), and Native American.
But these clusters are not the only way to apportion genetic diversity, of course. Race is, to a certain extent, a social construct. How much genetic clustering do current social groupings (including the dreaded word "Hispanic") show? A good question, and luckily one Risch answered in a 2005 paper:
Subjects identified themselves as belonging to one of four major racial/ethnic groups (white, African American, East Asian, and Hispanic) and were recruited from 15 different geographic locales within the United States and Taiwan. Genetic cluster analysis of the microsatellite markers produced four major clusters, which showed near-perfect correspondence with the four self-reported race/ethnicity categories. Of 3,636 subjects of varying race/ethnicity, only 5 (0.14%) showed genetic cluster membership different from their self-identified race/ethnicity.
So if one is using the word "race" as defined by the options available when you check a box on a government form, races do indeed show some extent of genetic clustering.

And for the record, here's the Wade quote that so exemplifies nefarious use of the word "race":
While Type 2 diabetes is more common in African-Americans, Latinos, American Indians, and Asian-Americans, Dr. Stefansson said more studies were needed to see whether there were significant differences in the variant gene's distribution among races.
Sounds pretty reasonable to me.