We have the technology!

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanApr 13, 2006 10:25 AM


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According to The New York TimesSeeking Ancestry in DNA Ties Uncovered by Tests is the most emailed article today. As I've stated before, I believe this area of science & technology is driven by psychology. The same drive which has led men and women to enter into the time consuming hobby of genealogy for hundreds of years. Below, NuSapiens offers the opinion that the new technology will undermine the current orthodoxies and mentalities in regards to race. Unfortunately, I don't believe that anymore...I just think people are too driven by their intuitive pattern matching & categorization schemas to properly digest statistical information. This is a lot like the prayer & heart disease study, one of the main reasons people threw 2.5 million dollars into the topic was because they had a priori psychological needs that needed to be met. No doubt we'll be funding prayer & medicine studies indefinitely, inconclusive results won't stop us. One of the reasons that scientists are so fascistic about seemingly arbitrary p-values is that the urge to see a "trend" is within us all. Like NuSapiens I once thought that genetic testing would start to undermine our current legal framework of racial classification. My reasons were political, I oppose affirmative action, and if you could replace a quasi-Platonic system (undergirded by truisms like hypodescent) with a statistical system I thought that legal implementation would be very difficult. Just because something is statistical doesn't mean that it renders previous truths null & void, they are simply modulated and given a more subtle texture. The law doesn't work this way, there is a reason that statistical evidence of group discrimination in death penalty cases involving black Americans was rejected by the Supreme Court, because cases are to be viewed individually. Similarly, the attempt by some to have the US Census use more accurate sampling techniques to get a better picture of the American population in 2000, as opposed to the standard "head count," failed because of the chasm between legalistic standards and statistical methodologies. I don't believe that a "statistical revolution" in human consciousness will occur anytime soon. I don't even think our elites are interested in, or smart enough, to "get it." Instead of looking back, let's look forward. Just like people have a credit rating, I think they should have an "affirmative action rating." We all know of individuals who are "Native American" but have "All American" looks. I certainly know of white Americans who could pass as some sort of Middle Easterner (how many stories of swarthy good ole boys getting scrutinized after 9/11 do we have to hear?). One of the problems with standard affirmative action programs is that they are clunky, and they are often taken advantage of by those who don't really "deserve" a break. There are bizarre cases like Jews whose Polish ancestors emigrated from Spain after 1492 claiming to be Hispanic. Or that 1/4 of Harvard students who are "black" are biracial. Why does this matter? There is some evidence of non-trivial differences in discrimation based on skin tone among black Americans, so light skinned blacks (as biracial individuals generally are perceived to be) would experience less negativity than dark skinned blacks, and yet still be labelled in the catchall "black" category. Then there is the reality that many Latinos are operationally white, while others are black and others brown. These groups are lumped together for affirmative action benefits when it seems that a near-black Dominican would have experienced much more discrimination than a white Cuban. The new sciences aren't perfect, while paternity is now no longer theory, ascertainment of racial heritage is more sketchy.

But, I'm actually not thinking about genetic tests

. In terms of race I think that people should have pictures taken and based on skin color and facial features given a "affirmative action credit" contignent upon their "matching" an averaged face of racial "prototypes" in features, with a parameter giving more credits to darker individuals. Additionally, we have millions of social scientists in this country, why not engage in a massive program of ascertaining the extent and depth of bias across this nation in various circumstances? This way the credit could have conditionalities (so for example, Asian American credits might go further in Nebraska than in Hawaii). It seems plausible to me that Japanese Americans should receive a smaller credit than black Americans. Poor whites who habitually wear wife-beaters might have to receive a credit, though monitoring of their dress is an issue. Southerners might get a credit because their accent kind of makes them sound dumb to most other Americans (you know what I'm saying). There are now computer programs which can model movement and behavior, so a "queer meter" could be set up so that we can distinguish between "straight acting" and "queeny" gay men, as the latter no doubt are on the receiving end of far more hostility than their brothers who blend in. Some more masculine looking women might have to receive less credit than more feminine looking women in executive corporate environments where the latter aren't taken seriously, while if they were secretarial assistants the more feminine looking ones might have a leg up. Also, less attractive people would get a credit (attractive people make 5-10% more all variables controlled). We can record facial symmetry and what not pretty well at this point, and also have weighting parameters given to "masculinity" and "femininity" dependent on gender. There are borderline iffy cases, like body mass or clothing. These two are obviously in part the responsibility of the individual, but, some people have genes that bias them toward fatness, while groups like Sikhs have to dress a weird way because of their religion, and we have to be sensitive to religions because people have an habitual predisposition to believe in made up beings in the sky. These are details that will need to be hashed out. I know that this seems like it might be a bureaucratic morass. But such is the cost of the just society! What is social science good for if we can't utilize it in refining social engineering?

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