Moving on from Nicholas Wade to Continuing Concerns about Scientific Racism

Posted by Pete Shanks August 14, 2014
Biopolitical Times

The sad saga of Nicholas Wade, former international reporter turned laughing stock, seems to be staggering toward its inevitable end. However, the issues that he — unintentionally — highlighted remain, and badly need to be addressed.

Wade's fatuous book, A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History (see 1, 2), has drawn what surely must be the definitive response from, at last count, 143 population geneticists. Essentially (to quote Marshall McLuhan, as scripted by Woody Allen) they each say:

You know nothing of my work.

The scientists published a short letter in The New York Times Book Review on August 8, commending the July 10th review of Wade's book by David Dobbs and thanking Dobbs "for his description of Wade's misappropriation of research from our field to support arguments about differences among human societies." The letter notes that:

Wade juxtaposes an incomplete and inaccurate account of our research on human genetic differences with speculation that recent natural selection has led to worldwide differences in I.Q. test results, political institutions and economic development. We reject Wade's implication that our findings substantiate his guesswork. They do not.

We are in full agreement that there is no support from the field of population genetics for Wade's conjectures.

The letter was noticed in various corners of the press, including the Los Angeles Times and the [London] Independent, as well as the news pages of Nature and Science. Some of the readers' comments in Science are a source of grim humor if you are so inclined.

Wade is not backing down. In a response [pdf, here or here], he accuses his critics of being "driven by politics, not science" and claims to have "seen no basis" for the "repeated assertions that the book is scientifically inaccurate."

This is rubbish. Wade did seem to have a poor connection when discussing the book with Agustin Fuentes on May 5; perhaps he failed to hear everything that was said. Perhaps he did not read the reviews by credentialed scientists from several disciplines with the care and attention they deserve (for instance, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5); perhaps, like a child afraid of the wicked witch, he closed his eyes and skipped over the ugly parts. Or perhaps he is so convinced of his own unique insight that mere facts bounce off the carapace that protects his prejudices.

Whatever the reason, Wade (who still insists that he opposes racism on principle) seems desperate to engage with his critics. But they are right to refuse: He claims to correct them in their own field, and he is wrong. There is no further debate to be had with one who will not learn.

There is, however, a continuing and even growing need to have a series of related discussions, which should involve both academics of many specialities and the public in general, at all levels of formal and informal education. Population geneticists and anthropologists may be quite clear about the fallacies that surrounded the subjects of race and genetics, but it is equally obvious that some psychologists and physicists are not. Some Americans may blithely insist that we live in a post-racial society; most of us know better.

Sticking strictly to fields directly connected with genetics, racial fallacies and simplistic interpretations of inadequate data have been — are being — used in attempts to sell race-based medicine, for instance, as well as relatively trivial ancestry scams. Race-based forensic applications of technology, biased databases, even advocacy of predictive sentencing, need to be addressed, critiqued, corrected and discarded. The social construction of race needs to be addressed at social, cultural and political levels.

Cherry-picking from scientific papers to misrepresent their conclusions in order to bolster prejudice must not be allowed to continue. That is the big lesson to be drawn from Wade's experience.

Personalized medicine may, eventually, have an important role to play in society. If and when it does, the differential distribution of alleles between populations is not really going to be vital: what will matter is that a given patient has a given allele, and whether it is rare or common in a particular geographic or cultural milieu will largely be irrelevant (except for effects of the external environment).

But it's going to take both a lot of research and a lot of discussion to reach that point. If Wade's hasty grab for the spotlight helped to make that clear, then something useful came of it. Perhaps it can yet be the start of an important discussion.

Previously on Biopolitical Times: