The misrepresentation of genetic science in the Vox piece on race and IQ

I don’t have time or inclination to do a detailed analysis of this piece in Vox, Charles Murray is once again peddling junk science about race and IQ. Most people really don’t care about the details, so what’s the point?

But in a long piece one section jumped out to me in particular because it is false:

Murray talks about advances in population genetics as if they have validated modern racial groups. In reality, the racial groups used in the US — white, black, Hispanic, Asian — are such a poor proxy for underlying genetic ancestry that no self-respecting statistical geneticist would undertake a study based only on self-identified racial category as a proxy for genetic ancestry measured from DNA.

Obviously the Census categories are pretty bad and not optimal (e.g., the “Asian American” category pools South with East & Southeast Asians, and that has caused issues in biomedical research in the past). But the claim is false. In the first half of the 2000s the eminent statistical geneticist Neil Risch specifically addressed this issue. From 2002 in Genome Biology Categorization of humans in biomedical research: genes, race and disease:

A debate has arisen regarding the validity of racial/ethnic categories for biomedical and genetic research. Some claim ‘no biological basis for race’ while others advocate a ‘race-neutral’ approach, using genetic clustering rather than self-identified ethnicity for human genetic categorization. We provide an epidemiologic perspective on the issue of human categorization in biomedical and genetic research that strongly supports the continued use of self-identified race and ethnicity.

A major discussion has arisen recently regarding optimal strategies for categorizing humans, especially in the United States, for the purpose of biomedical research, both etiologic and pharmaceutical. Clearly it is important to know whether particular individuals within the population are more susceptible to particular diseases or most likely to benefit from certain therapeutic interventions. The focus of the dialogue has been the relative merit of the concept of ‘race’ or ‘ethnicity’, especially from the genetic perspective. For example, a recent editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine [1] claimed that “race is biologically meaningless” and warned that “instruction in medical genetics should emphasize the fallacy of race as a scientific concept and the dangers inherent in practicing race-based medicine.” In support of this perspective, a recent article in Nature Genetics [2] purported to find that “commonly used ethnic labels are both insufficient and inaccurate representations of inferred genetic clusters.” Furthermore, a supporting editorial in the same issue [3] concluded that “population clusters identified by genotype analysis seem to be more informative than those identified by skin color or self-declaration of ‘race’.” These conclusions seem consistent with the claim that “there is no biological basis for ‘race'” [3] and that “the myth of major genetic differences across ‘races’ is nonetheless worth dismissing with genetic evidence” [4]. Of course, the use of the term “major” leaves the door open for possible differences but a priori limits any potential significance of such differences.

In our view, much of this discussion does not derive from an objective scientific perspective. This is understandable, given both historic and current inequities based on perceived racial or ethnic identities, both in the US and around the world, and the resulting sensitivities in such debates. Nonetheless, we demonstrate here that from both an objective and scientific (genetic and epidemiologic) perspective there is great validity in racial/ethnic self-categorizations, both from the research and public policy points of view.

From a 2005 interview:

Gitschier: Let’s talk about the former, the genetic basis of race. As you know, I went to a session for the press at the ASHG [American Society for Human Genetics] meeting in Toronto, and the first words out of the mouth of the first speaker were “Genome variation research does not support the existence of human races.”

Risch: What is your definition of races? If you define it a certain way, maybe that’s a valid statement. There is obviously still disagreement.

Gitschier: But how can there still be disagreement?

Risch: Scientists always disagree! A lot of the problem is terminology. I’m not even sure what race means, people use it in many different ways.

In our own studies, to avoid coming up with our own definition of race, we tend to use the definition others have employed, for example, the US census definition of race. There is also the concept of the major geographical structuring that exists in human populations—continental divisions—which has led to genetic differentiation. But if you expect absolute precision in any of these definitions, you can undermine any definitional system. Any category you come up with is going to be imperfect, but that doesn’t preclude you from using it or the fact that it has utility.

We talk about the prejudicial aspect of this. If you demand that kind of accuracy, then one could make the same arguments about sex and age!

You’ll like this. In a recent study, when we looked at the correlation between genetic structure [based on microsatellite markers] versus self-description, we found 99.9% concordance between the two. We actually had a higher discordance rate between self-reported sex and markers on the X chromosome! So you could argue that sex is also a problematic category. And there are differences between sex and gender; self-identification may not be correlated with biology perfectly. And there is sexism. And you can talk about age the same way. A person’s chronological age does not correspond perfectly with his biological age for a variety of reasons, both inherited and non-inherited. Perhaps just using someone’s actual birth year is not a very good way of measuring age. Does that mean we should throw it out? No. Also, there is ageism—prejudice related to age in our society. A lot of these arguments, which have a political or social aspect to them, can be made about all categories, not just the race/ethnicity one.

Risch is not obscure. In the piece the author observes that Risch ‘was described by one of the field’s founding fathers [of the field] as “the statistical geneticist of our time.’

2005 is a long way from 2017. Risch may have changed his mind. In fact, it is probably best for him and his reputation if he has changed his mind. I wouldn’t be surprised if Risch comes out and engages in a struggle session where he disavows his copious output from 2005 and earlier defending the utilization of race as a concept in statistical genetics.

Also, genotyping is cheap enough and precise enough that one might actually make an argument for leaving off any self-reported ancestry questions. It’s really not necessary. This isn’t 2005.

But that section in the Vox piece is simply false. The existence of Risch refutes it. Vox is a high profile website which serves to “explain” things to people. The academics who co-wrote that piece are very smart, prominent, and known to me. I don’t plan on asking them why they put that section in there. I think I know why.

There will be no update to that piece I’m sure. It will be cited widely. It will become part of what “we” all know. Who I am to disagree with Vox? This is journalism from what have been able to gather and understand. The founders of Vox are rich and famous now. Incentives matter. There are great journalists out there  who don’t misrepresent topics which I know well. But the incentive structure is not to reward this. More often storytellers who tell you the story you like to be told are rewarded.

As for science and the academy? I am frankly too depressed to say more.

66 thoughts on “The misrepresentation of genetic science in the Vox piece on race and IQ

  1. Only naive scientism proponents like Pinker (yes I will diss him) think that we progress towards liberty and truth. This is the whig history interpretation.

    Honestly what you have to understand is that scientific questions require certain assumptions that are based on our normative views. Science is not objective, both history and philosophy of science has shown us that. I used to think like that, then I decided to get a second degree in philosophy and history of science. Everything changed for me. Our assumptions and beliefs leak to how we design our research, how we interpret it and what conclusions to draw for future studies. Especially if you get into a politically and historically charged subject such as race. This notion that you can separate your normative and political views from the scientific ones is flawed.

    I used to hang around HBD blogs since 2010, I used to comment and debate them. Nothing happens. People don’t change their minds. At least not easily when it comes to political matters. Your intuitions will guide you more than anything.
    HBDers will never understand how people like me think about race. The article on this weeks retractionwatch link list captures the point. The title reads: “Daryl Bem Proved ESP (extrasensory perception) Is Real, Which means science is broken”. If behavioral genetics and intelligence research proves that blacks (and white poor ppl for that matter) are less intelligent genetically, it means science is broken.

    I grew up in a working class/poor household, I made it out of poverty and into the science world because of reasons and happenstance. If you are trying to tell me that poor people are genetically less intelligent, I won’t believe you. Cause I have lived this, it’s just so counter-intuitive. At least not until you show me concrete evidence. I don’t expect people that are reading this to understand. Libertarian (leaning) techies that live in their own bubbles think that about those damn poor folks. They think they only follow the evidence. Take Murray for example he explicitly says in TBC “The underclass are not be trusted to use cash wisely”. I can’t even start with that shit.

    Most scientists know that nature vs. nurture is a false dichotomy. The bio-determinist vs. social constructionist debates are so outdated. You can’t separate the two. There is a direct feedback interaction. Sociogenomics is a thing. At least in non-human animal research. But what do I know. I am just a biased sjw cuckservative evolutionary geneticist anyways.

    And we all know that academia is a failure when it comes to academic freedom. Academic freedom is incoherent after all, since science has political and moral components and consequences. We can only try to support it this far but there will always be censored and ridiculed views. Heterodoxy = controversy. Almost always.

    I know most people will read this and label me as a new creationist or whatever. I don’t care anymore. Debates rarely work. We could look at the exact same data and draw diametrically opposite conclusions.

    Anyways, thanks Razib for your post. We need people to speak up, not be persecuted. Just use caution. I am a sjw and I care what you think.

  2. Do not despair Razib, I remember you from your bloggingheads days and I can tell the weight of the lying and deceit and backlash from people is getting to you.

    I’m a liberal myself so I understand the fear and aversion to group differences in iq. I do not blame anyone for being skittish about the topic, or not wanting to even go there due to legitimate fears of justifying a sort of hierarchy of man in our capitalistic/meritocratic society.

    Even if the state does not discriminate on race and ethnicity, a capitalistic society based on a meritocracy is REQUIRED to discriminate based on metrics like greater talent and skill and aptitude, in addition to things like effort and grit and luck and connections. And it does not take a gifted mind to figure out that if there are group differences in average iq, where such a stat matters to the fates of men in a meritocratic society, then that effectively justifies (via our propping up of a meritocracy) differential treatment based on group characteristics.

    Most people think it’s legitimate to discriminate based on someone having greater talent and aptitude, so asking them to link more or less of that to the averages of different races just slides in a demand that they accept racial discrimination in results as legitimate as well.

    When put in that way, is it any wonder that so many will lie about reality to avoid that nightmare scenario?

    The best hope we have, is to have the people in the know map out what gene combinations lead to what, so we can start to modify people and enhance them. Once we can actually do something about group differences and individual differences in aptitudes, people will be less defensive, less prone to lie about reality because of the things they think it will lead to.

    This may be cold comfort, but your efforts are not in vain. It is useful to not have the only voices talking about group differences in aptitudes being “race realist” types that want to strip mine the the nation of anything non white. It is a lie to suggest that people who think average iq is not constant across populations are racists simply because of that. More than that, there is a way in which the liberals who accept this reality and want to do something about it via human enhancement, positive selection of embryos, advances in crispr to alter the germline will be the ones championed in the future. Like Prometheus stealing fire from the gods and gifting them to all mankind…

    Ok, bad analogy, I hope you don’t have some massive eagle picking at your innards for all eternity for your efforts.

  3. I’ve been reading you since I was 17. I turn 31 this year.

    I truly empathize with everything you’ve been feeling recently.

    I support your decisions, whatever they may be. And though I would be sad if you stopped writing (as much or completely), I would definitely understand if you did.

    Sometimes it’s easier to just smile and nod to get through life; trying your best to avoid difficult people. Most debates are futile as they mostly never bear fruit.

  4. I assume you mean one of the Spartacus rising moments and not one of the crucifixion moments.

  5. “Take Murray for example he explicitly says in TBC “The underclass are not be trusted to use cash wisely”. I can’t even start with that shit.”

    As a broad generalization, nothing could be more accurate.

    I will add to it and say that it is becoming increasingly clear that the underclass will not, except for brief moments in time, be able to articulate a rational political program that is beneficial to their economic interests.

  6. I have a number of concerns about the Vox piece but curiously the claim you object to is not one of them. I am not close enough to the field to know whether or not it is *now* true that “no self-respecting statistical geneticist would undertake a study based *only* on self-identified racial category as a proxy for genetic ancestry measured from DNA”, but what you present is not a counterexample. As you yourself say “This isn’t 2005”. And what you do quote from Risch looked more like an analysis of how well racial/ethnic self-categorization *might* be (or have been) used as a proxy for genetic structure [based on microsatellite markers] (back when the cost of the latter was prohibitive) rather than an actual use case.

  7. “My following is small. meanwhile prominent liberals like jamelle bouie are direct messaging people who have the temerity to RT me.”

    That’s despicable. What an awful individual.

  8. Freddie is an awful target for this kind of accusation. He’s on the outs himself with a lot of the “front row kids.”

  9. This is an interesting observation. Yes, if the truth of sociobiology ever managed to penetrate the outer barrier of pop intellectual resistance, it’d face the even more formidable inner barrier of the widely shared myth of elbow grease-style meritocracy.

  10. Don’t we have clines, rather than races? Also, some traits that are linked to race, like sickle-cell anemia, are actually based more on the prevalence of malaria in the places your ancestors came from–not only places like western Africa, but also places like Italy, Greece, and Turkey–and not in places like South Africa.

  11. what is good in life?

    “To crush your enemies, to seem driven before you, and…”

    In all seriousness, Ah feel your pain. Was that from Sartre – “Hell is other people”?

    I have a very low opinion of human beings, and I am always censured by fate and reminded again and again that I overrate people. I have encountered, in my life, far too much cowardice and especially self-serving cravenness to recount here. All I will say is that, often I have enough of people, so I grab my rifle, a 3-day pack, and one of my dogs and disappear into the woods for a while. I only come back for my family and friends (and, by friends, I do not mean people with whom I am acquainted; I mean those for whom I would take a bullet and those who would take a bullet for me).

    In other words, I lead a life of community for my loved ones, not for myself. If it were just me, I’d live in a small cabin in the wilderness with a few dogs.

    I have friends who feel the same way. Some do the hunting thing as I do. One goes to a Catholic monastery for a while. And of course there are always hours of Eucharistic Adoration and visits to the confessional for those who are Catholics as I am.

    I would advise you, Mr. Khan, to find some place of solace and perhaps even transcendence, and utilize it similarly… go away for a while until you feel up to being able to deal with people again.

    Or find a social hobby with little to no bullshit (which for me are shooting and martial arts, Judo and Brazilian Jujitsu in particular). This is not to say that there is no bullshit in guns and martial arts. Both “industries” overflow with complete and utter sales-based bull crap. But you can find good, earnest people with whom you build camaraderie and friendship through mutual improvement. My training partners and I are, indeed, brothers.

    And of course there is always worthy charity… which is not only good for those being served by it, but is also soul-enriching for the people performing it. I have met some truly saintly people through it, people whose kindness and devotion and sacrifice have humbled me deeply and made me forget about “the sheeple” as you called them.

    We are not meant for a life of comfort here on earth. My faith teaches me that we are only offered but a foretaste of heaven here. Accepting that makes the unbearable things in life, including disappointments about people, more bearable.

  12. FWIW, I wrote a response to it that got some good traffic, and while I’m sure it is not perfect on all the technical details or in presentation, I think does a good job at pushing back against the idea that Murray is somehow out of the mainstream. He’s not.

    Re: anonymity, I agree with Razib that my semi-anonymity represents cowardice, but I am on the job market right now and I think the positive role the article is playing could outweigh the need for me to be transparent. Plus it induced some non-anonymous people to endorse it, which was nice.

  13. Both. And we have admixture.

    Medical issues are a lot more complex than you have mentioned, e.g. I understand that African Americans are more prone to hypertension than other groups, and responses to treatments vary.

  14. [long time lurker, been following since the scienceblogs days; caught the edge of the gnxp days too]

    Please keep blogging, even if you stay away from third-rail topics according to prudence. The Voxes will never write things that discomfit their audience; reality yes, but within reason – when it has a liberal bias. It’s not like fulminating out of a sense of SIWOTI was ever going to change that.

    Your main value add – imo – is in any case that you know more history (and not just European history) and scientifically oriented social science than the geneticists and more genetics than the social scientists. That’s interesting, even if you feel a need to self censor on the race/gender stuff.

  15. I did not give a simple view of medical issues and geographical origin.

    As for hypertension, would you get the same results if you tested someone with West African ancestry and someone with South African ancestry? What about someone with East African ancestry? Would they all be uniform? In Europe, if you tested an English person, a German, an Italian, a Greek, a Turk, a Bulgarian, a Finn, and a Russian, would their results all be uniform? Would there be clustering? Would that clustering be by continent?

    My point is, these old-fashioned US-based racial classifications are more or less useless in finding out the likelihood of medical conditions. It would be much more prudent to give geographical origin and specific ethnic ancestry, if it’s available.

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