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Some geneticists have expressed their unease about a figure in a high-profile Nature paper that was published earlier this week1, noting that it could be misinterpreted as reinforcing racist beliefs. The figure has reignited a long-standing debate among geneticists about how best to discuss and depict race, ethnicity and genomic ancestry, given how these terms can be misinterpreted and weaponized by extremists.

“The problem is, a lot of people will see figures like this as supporting a viewpoint” that race and ethnicity are closely aligned with genetics, says Ewan Birney, deputy director-general of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Cambridgeshire, UK. “And then they build castles in the air from all this.”

Alexander Bick, a physician and geneticist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee, who co-authored the paper in which the figure appears, acknowledged in an e-mail to Nature’s news team that “it’s clear that the figure fell short of our intended goal for this paper”. (Nature’s news team is editorially independent of its journal team.) But Bick defended the analysis, noting...