It is time for another entry in the mailbag series where I answer feedback email from readers and others. If you want to send me a question, comment or any other kind of feedback, please do so using the contact info on the about page.
With access to constant media reporting from around the world, it is hard to ignore stories about economy, elections, crimes and war. A lot of this news reporting involve coverage that is in some way related to differences within and between countries in terms of poverty and richness, ethnic tensions, scientific progress and lack of basic resources for life. It is understandable that we often ask ourselves about the nature of such differences, how they came about, what they mean, and how we can approach them.
However, dark clouds often appear on the horizon. Political and religious groups claim to have the truth on these matters and that their particular narrative of the nature and causes of, and solutions to, world problems should be preferred over others. These are often based on ideology and beliefs, rather than the result of scientific research and rational thinking. Typically, these narratives have a substantial flaw: they are simplistic and only include a single factor or perhaps a few, while and ignore the multifactorial nature of complex problems. It is tempting to be lured into simplistic explanations for a complex world, because they are cognitively easy and allows us to put blame on one group or a few groups of people. However, they are often as false as they are naive. Instead, we should banish proposed “explanations” that try to explain a complex societal processes with simplistic causes.
After reading some of the articles on Debunking Denialism about the scientific problems with race realism, RH decided to send me an email about some of the issues he was thinking about. The topics involve genetics, heritability, inventions, poverty, national economy, crime, history, and politics.
High-throughput modern genetic studies finds very low between-group genetic variation
I mean how can you argue against racialism/race realism and say humanity is one race when the world just seems to contradict that?
The general answer to this question is that we must not be misled by how the world seems. Instead, we must boldly explore beyond the limited scope of our own personal beliefs and biases by testing them against broad scientific data without being selective and seeing what we want to see.
When scientists carry out high-throughput genomics research and look at 650 000 single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) and close to 400 microsatellites, they find that the vast majority of human genetic variation, ranging from 84.7%-95% depending on the study and genetic elements, occurs within populations (Li et al., 2008; Rosenberg et al., 2002). Only a tiny minority of genetic variation occurs between continental groups. Thus, the available scientific evidence strongly disagree with the race realist position. Instead, human genetic diversity is better described as mostly continuous clines, with a few rare exceptions (Serre and Pääbo, 2004). Certainly, there is still a scientific debate about details as in many other areas, but this is the mainstream scientific position with regards to human genetic diversity.
A common response by race realists is not to rebut the evidence, but to make the “Lewontin fallacy” accusation. This, however, is a distraction. Lewontin originally looked at a single locus and that was a major limitation, but modern research has validated his conclusions that most variation occurs within groups. None of the modern data is based on the Lewontin study design. There is more to read about this race realist distraction in Fetishizing Richard Lewontin.
Genes undergoing differential recent positive selection also refutes race realism
When scientists look at what genes have undergone recent positive selection in some populations, but not others, they mostly find genes related to the human immune system, superficial morphological traits, DNA repair, insulin regulation, metabolic pathways for ethanol and so on (Barreiro et al., 2008). Although some of the genes they identified are completely unknown, the available evidence is not consistent with the race realist claim about the genetic differences between populations, such as the flawed claim that whites evolved more intelligence, whereas blacks evolved more athletic ability. This was demolished in the comment section to a previous article on Debunking Denialism.
What about genetics and economics?
RH also asks the following about an alleged connection between ethnic background and national economics (the first ellipsis contain the part quoted earlier and the second contains the Ethiopia case study):
Why are black people poor everywhere on Earth? […] In sub-Saharan Africa blacks are poor. In the Caribbean blacks are poor. Even in America blacks are poor. White countries are all rich. No country of blacks has been able to build a modern civilization. […] Doesn’t that prove that the genetic stock of a country is one of the main causes of national success?
There are three general replies to RH.
The first involve colonialism, slavery and discrimination. It is not difficult to see how these factors can radically shift potential for national and personal income. RH suggests that we look at two African countries, Ethiopia and South Africa, which he thinks are counterexamples. However, South Africa had colonialism and apartheid and Ethiopia had the internal conflict known as Zemene Mesafint from 1769 to 1855 that saw over 30 different rulers and almost constant conflict. This surely had a considerable impact on national economy and development.
The second involves geographical and cultural factors as detailed in Diamond (1997). For instance had better crops, better climate, more domesticated animals, more immunity to devastating diseases because of this, better geography with long west-east distances that enable crops and animals domesticated in one place to work equally well in other areas, small countries that competed with each other in trade and war.
The third is modern genomics research that has tested the idea that there is a relationship between genetic diversity and economics (Rosenberg and Kang, 2015):
Nevertheless, despite this view that economic consequences can be traced to variation in genetic diversity, we have found no support for the claim of Ashraf and Galor (2013) that genetic diversity has been important in contributing to differences across human populations in levels of economic development. Our reanalysis has focused exclusively on the genetic data in their study, not repeating objections raised elsewhere about their demographic and economic data, statistics, and interpretations, or about the suitability of their data and genetic variables to addressing the question at hand (d’Alpoim Guedes et al. 2013; Gelman 2013; Feldman 2014). Whereas genetic diversity affects differences among human populations in other scenarios, reproducing the work of Ashraf and Galor (2013) on its own terms using expanded genetic data challenges the claim for a role of genetic diversity in economic development.
Thus, we have to look elsewhere than genetics to figure out why countries differ economically.
What about inventors?
RH makes the following suggestion about whites and inventions:
When you open up a science book, nearly everything was invented by white people.
What about things invented by the Egyptians, Middle East or Chinese inventors? Papyrus, parchment, hieroglyphs, libraries, temples, lighthouses, obelisks, ships, irrigation, making glass, algebra, compass, gunpowder, printing press etc.?
What about inventions, such as silicon retina, disposable syringes, the fire safe, the one-gigahertz computer processor chip, cabinet bed, refrigerated truck systems, synchronous multiplex railway telegraph, Imaging X-ray spectrometer etc.?
A quick Google search for inventions from these cultures and groups show that it is not the case that “nearly everything was invented by white people”. Instead, this is a conclusion reached from insufficient data and such conclusions tend to be unreliable. The inventions listed here are just a couple of examples, there are literally hundreds more.
What factors causes crime?
RH also discuss crime and ethnicity:
Maybe it’s no big deal to you, but if you visit America, where blacks, 13% of the population, commit 53% of all crimes, than maybe you will start to take racialism more seriously.
The general response is that those figures do not control for confounders, such as income, unemployment, broken families etc. that we know from other studies have stronger effects. RH also uses a problematic group definition. He likely considers individuals with one white and one black parents to be black, thereby overestimating this group size considerably. There are many articles on Debunking Denialism that goes into additional detail, such as White Genocide, Eurabia and Other White Supremacist Nonsense, with references to the scientific literature.
So here too, ethnicity is a distraction. What scientific research has been done on the causes of crime? It is always difficult to study humans, because it is hard to control for all confounders and it is not feasible to do controlled social experiments on humans for many, many decades.
Criminology have isolated several important factors that are strongly related to crime in the sense that it increases the risk of committing crime. In general, it is a complex interaction between biology, psychology and environment, just like any other behavior. The classic textbook by Bernard, Snipes and Gerould (2010) lists 18 major factors that appear especially important, but there are probably many, many more.
The nine individual factors they list (p. 353) are:
1. A history of early childhood problem behaviors and of being subjected to poor parental child-rearing techniques, such as harsh and inconsistent discipline; school failure and the failure to learn higher cognitive skills such as moral reasoning, empathy, and problem solving.
2. Certain neurotransmitter imbalances such as low serotonin, certain hormone imbalances such as high testosterone, central nervous system deficiencies such as frontal or temporal lobe dysfunction, and autonomic nervous system variations such as unusual reactions to anxiety.
3. Ingesting alcohol, a variety of illegal drugs, and some toxins such as lead; head injuries; and complications during subject’s pregnancy or both.
4. Personality characteristics such as impulsivity; insensitivity, a physical and nonverbal orientation, and a tendency to take risks.
5. Thinking patterns that focus on trouble, toughness, smartness, excitement, fate, and autonomy, and a tendency to think in terms of short-term rather than long-term consequences.
6. Association with others who engage in and approve of criminal behavior.
7. Weak attachments to other people, less involvement in conventional activities, less to lose from committing crime, and weak beliefs in the moral validity of the law.
8. A perception that there is less risk of punishment for engaging in criminal behavior.
9. Masculinity as a gender role.
The nine social factors they list are (pp. 359-360):
1. Economic modernization and development is associated with a rise in property crime rates. Property crime rates tends to increase until the society is highly developed and then hold steady at a high level. The process that results in this pattern of crime involve changes in routine activities and in criminal activities, which eventually are balanced by the increasing effectiveness of countermeasures.
2. Economic inequality is associated with a rise in rates of violence. Such violence may involve feelings of frustration and relative deprivation.
3. Cultures that emphasize the goal of material success at the expense of adherence to legitimate means are associated with high rates of utilitarian crime; an unequal distribution of legitimate means to achieve material success is associated with an inverse distribution of utilitarian crime; and in situations without legitimate means to economic success, the development of illegitimate means is associated with increased utilitarian crime, while the lack of such development is with increase violent crime. In these situations, the inability to achieve status by conventional criteria is associated with status inversion and higher rates of non-utilitarian criminal behavior. The processes involved in these structural patterns involve either frustration or th simple tendency to engage in self-interested behavior.
4. Neighborhoods with high unemployment, frequent residential mobility, and family disruption tend to have high crime rates. The process involve neighborhood anonymity that results in social disorganization.
5. Media dissemination of techniques and rationalizations that are favorable to law violation are associated with increased rates of law violation. The process involves direct learning of techniques and rationalizations and indirect learning of the consequences that criminal behavior have for others.
6. Joblessness and racism can generate an inner-city code of the street that promulgates normative violence in a variety of situations. The process includes feelings of hopelessness and alienation among inner-city residents and the generation of an oppositional subculture as a means of maintaining self-respect.
7. Increases in the objective certainty of punishments are associated with reductions in crime rates, but increases in the objective severity of punishments seems to be associated either with no change or with increases in crime rates. In addition, crackdowns on certain types of crimes are associated with short-term reduction in the rates of those crimes that may extend beyond the life of the crackdown policy itself.
8. Society that stigmatize deviants have higher crime rates than do those that reintegrate deviants. The process involves blocked legitimate opportunity and the formation of subcultures.
9. Societies in which some people control others have higher crime rates than do societies in which people control and are controlled by others in approximate equal amounts. The process involves people’s natural tendency to expand their control.
Some of this might merely be correlational in nature and some hidden confounder that has never been tested or controlled for might be the culprit. But it gives us an introductory idea about what factors cause or is strongly associated with crime.
What about socialism, communism, and political correctness?
RH spends most of his email complaining about leftist political ideology. It is true that more attention is often given to the crimes of Nazism than dictatorial communism and there is certainly a need to shine more light on the crimes of communism. Not just in terms of the number of murdered, but also in regards to their legal, economic and scientific failures.
It is also true that a lot of American university professors lean towards the political left on economics and personal freedom. However, RH confuses this kind of social democracy with dictatorial communism. These two political ideologies are not the same, just like American-style capitalism and Nazism is not the same. This black-and-white thinking underlies much of the complains delivered by RH. What doomed Nazism and communism was that they were dictatorships that did not respect human rights and did not accept basic legal, scientific and economic facts. In contrast, many social democracies, such as Sweden and Norway, are doing great in comparison with the way things went in Nazi Germany and the communist Soviet Union.
In the end, ramblings such as these work as a thought-terminating cliché. People make arguments within the realm of politics that they would never ever do in other areas. Proponents of political ideology make scientific and statistical errors as well as deploy various emotional manipulative techniques. This is the reason why I try to avoid political ideology as much as possible and base my beliefs about the world on evidence and reason. At the same time, I am conscious of the fact that this does not mean that I am free of bias or error and attempt to be transparent and express my premises whenever possible.
I have objected to pseudoscience and misuse of statistics from the political left as well. In particular, anti-GMO sentiments and claims about all men being genetically defect and brain damaged, but there are more examples.
Is pseudoscience and denialism really that bad? Yes.
RH thinks that the politically correct culture among university professors are much worse than pseudoscience:
There are not armies of academics who are anti-GMO or anti-climate change. I never had any prof/teacher who taught that vaccines were unsafe or that AIDS doesn’t exist. BUT – essentially all of them were leftist loons. […] There is NO PC culture of that magnitude for climate change, GMOs, vaccines, the holocaust, or the existence of HIV/AIDS.
Alternative medicine is a 34 billion dollar industry per year in the United States (NCCIH, 2009). Over 330 000 people died a premature death due to the HIV/AIDS denialism of the South African government under former President Thabo Mbeki (Chigwedere et al., 2008). 57% of U. S. adults say that GMOs are generally unsafe to eat (Funk and Rainie, 2015). 58% of Americans either say that vaccines cause autism, or that they are not sure what the facts are and almost 1 in 10 think that vaccines are more dangerous than the diseases they protect against (Newport, 2015). 42% of Americans think that the problem with climate change is exaggerated (Dugan, 2014) and 1 in 4 is not worried at all (Saad 2014). Half of the world does not even know the Holocaust happened, and only 1 in 3 is aware of it and think that the historical account is largely accurate (Green, 2014).
Thus, there is certainly a culture of pseudoscientific anti-intellectualism when it comes to these topics. To a large extent, people at the political left are just as vulnerable to falling for bullshit as the political right.
Barreiro, L. B., Laval, G., Quach, H., Patin, E., & Quintana-Murci, L. (2008). Natural selection has driven population differentiation in modern humans. Nat Genet, 40(3), 340-345.
Bernard, Thomas J., Snipes, Jeffrey B., & Gerould, Alexander L. (2010). Vold’s Theoretical Criminology (International Sixth ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.
Chigwedere P, Seage GR 3rd, Gruskin S, Lee TH, Essex M. (2008) Estimating the lost benefits of antiretroviral drug use in South Africa. J Acquir Immune Defic Syndr. 49(4):410-5.
Diamond, J. (1997). Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. New York: W. W. Norton.
Dugan, A. (2014). Americans Most Likely to Say Global Warming Is Exaggerated. Accessed: 2016-04-30.
Funk, C., Rainie, L. (2005). Chapter 6: Public Opinion About Food. Accessed: 2016-04-30.
Green, E. (2014). The World Is Full of Holocaust Deniers. Accessed: 2016-04-30.
Li, J. Z., Absher, D. M., Tang, H., Southwick, A. M., Casto, A. M., Ramachandran, S., . . . Myers, R. M. (2008). Worldwide Human Relationships Inferred from Genome-Wide Patterns of Variation. Science, 319(5866), 1100-1104.
Newport, F. (2015). In U.S., Percentage Saying Vaccines Are Vital Dips Slightly. Accessed: 2016-04-30.
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Saad, L. (2014). One in Four in U.S. Are Solidly Skeptical of Global Warming. Accessed: 2016-04-30.
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