A little knowledge is a dangerous thing

This was a comment on a New Scientist piece, Linking genes to geography could revive race myth.

The concept of human races that most of us have grown up with has been shown to be at best simplified or misleading and at worst completely false. That hasn’t and won’t make racism go away. Furthermore this racial theory we have inherited is founded on Victorian science, and an enlightened project to classify and make sense of the world as they knew it then. The racial theory we know is far better founded than the theories at their time, but that wasn’t good enough.

Combined with the obvious question at the time, “Why are Europeans so apparently superior to other human beings?”, this cause profound misery in the late 19th and the first half of the 20th century. The scientists did their best based on what they knew moved on based on new data. But the societies didn’t as there will always be a generation gap between the two.

I think history might repeat itself. Phrenology and talking about the Mongoloid race is (mostly) a thing of our past, slowly so may the Victorian idea of race do as well. The question of today seems to be “Why are the East Asians so much better at making money than other human beings?” Based on the past we can expect racist attacks and theories both against and by ethnically East Asians.

Science has moved on, we don’t talk of race any longer, we talk of populations. But when it comes to genetics we are no better informed than the Victorians were about anthropology. We are making our conclusions on very scant material. There will be something in it for everyone, and many of these will have an axe to grind. By carefully selecting data you can get material to support every wild idea you can find on the Internet.

Nothwithstanding “It is important to emphasise that there are no genetic variations exclusive to any racial group. Some are more common in certain populations, but their distribution does not align with social categories of race.” the idea of race is too ingrained and too useful to go away.

And it isn’t just about race. Say you have data that 30% in a population, such as a classroom or an office, are predisposed to obesity. How are the 30% or the 70% to react to this information? If you know you are predisposed, would you eat less, or will you eat more because you can’t help it anyway? What if you are predisposed to being bad in math? Or to violent crime? What if it is the neighbour and the neighbour’s kids?

And what if 15 years later scientist discover that you or your neighbour weren’t predisposed for obesity or being bad in math or violent crime after all? How would your life have changed from living 15 years under false assumptions?


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