Let’s Talk About Race

A Post OpEd by Jonathan Capehart:

That honest conversation about race everyone wants? We can’t handle it. … We say we want the conversation. But we just can’t handle it — especially in public. … [In 2008,] I would have wanted to hear a white Southern Republican such as Barbour give an honest speech on race from his perspective, in an effort to explain and heal. It might have proved uncomfortable, but we would have listened, learned and moved forward with the knowledge gained. But I also understand Barbour’s reticence. To deliver such a speech, with power and nuance, would mean putting one’s livelihood — in politics and business — on the line. It would require a bravery and selflessness few could muster. (more)

Capehart dares us to prove him wrong. So let me try. (At least at a meta-level.)

Today academia has a pecking order. For example, math is high while education studies are low. Academics sometimes argue about this order, mentioning arguments for and against each discipline. Sometimes people invoke misleading stereotypes, and sometimes others correct them. While misconceptions remain common, we probably still have more accurate beliefs on how disciplines differ than we would if these conversations were forbidden.

Long ago when issues of race and gender equality were first raised in TV shows, I remember (as a kid) seeing characters argue about the differing features of various races, genders, etc. Claims were made, rebutted, etc. This helped I think. But today it is never ok, even in private, to describe any negative tendencies of “low” races, nor any positive tendencies of “high” races, at least if that suggests others have those tendencies less. And this basically bans the sort of useful talk that academics now have about their pecking order. A similar ban holds for much of gender talk.

The reason that such talk is useful is that it is generally harder to evaluate behaviors and people outside of the cultures and roles that you know best. In the cultures I know best, such as academic economics or research software, I feel at least modestly competent to evaluate behaviors and people, especially for people who take on the same roles that I have taken.

Yes, even there people vary greatly in personality, smarts, experience, etc., but I have collected many standard tricks for discerning such things. The fact that folks from another race or gender might have somewhat different means or variances doesn’t matter that much, as long as my standard tricks work similarly for them. It hasn’t seemed hard for me to deal fairly with folks from other races and genders, as long they stayed close to roles I knew well, centered within cultures I knew well.

However, the further that people and contexts get from the cultures and roles that I know best, the less reliable are my standard tricks. People from other races and genders often have experienced substantially differing cultures and roles than the ones I’m most familiar with. So to make sense of behavior in such cases, I have to fall back somewhat onto beliefs about which of my usual tricks degrade how fast as various parameters change with cultures and roles. That is, I must rely on stereotypes about what tends to vary by cultures and roles, and it is too easy to be wrong about those. In particular I must rely on my best guesses about how many things differ for the different cultures and roles associated with different races and genders.

Sometimes people say you shouldn’t use stereotypes, but should instead just “judge each person and situation by itself.” But you just can’t do that if you don’t know how to interpret what you see. Since behaviors and features change with cultures, you need some sense of the cultural origins of what you see in order to interpret it. And since we all can’t immerse ourselves in depth in many different cultures, we need to talk to each other to share what we’ve seen.

If academics weren’t allowed to say bad things about the culture of education studies, nor good things about the culture of math, I expect we’d mostly just stop talking how these cultures differ. But we’d be pretty sure that there are differences, and that all cultures have both good and bad aspects. So we’d have stereotypes, and use them when doing so wasn’t overly visible. Similarly, our effective ban on race and gender talk doesn’t stop us from believing that many important things change with the differing cultures and roles that have correlated with races and genders. Nor does it keep us from often acting on such beliefs.

Our choice to ban saying bad things about “low” races and genders, or saying good things about “high” races and genders, was clearly a costly signal, and it did send the message “we care enough about keep good relations with you to pay this cost.” But part of the cost was to make it harder to use talk to reduce the impact of misleading race and gender stereotypes on our actions. We might have been better off to instead pay a different kind of cost, such as cash transfers.

I’m basically invoking the usual argument for the info value of free speech here. It is an argument that is often given lip service, but alas our commitment to it is far weaker than our lip service would suggest.

Added 14May: Maybe when people say they want a “conversation about race”, they don’t mean that old white men should do any talking beyond nodding agreement and sympathy with other speakers.

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  • StEwPiD_MoNkEy

    I am confused about some of your terminology. Many would consider math to be apart of academia. Also, you are using the word race wrong. There is only 1 race. Homo Saipen. Everything else is just sub species or varient of the same. Better to speak of ethinicity or culture, etc. Race is a misnomer.

    • Sean II

      “Race is a misnomer.”

      Three reasons why you should stop saying that:

      1) It’s false.
      2) It stopped sounding cool and deep around 1997, or when you turned 35, whichever came first.
      3) It’s a thought-terminating conversation-killer.

    • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

      Did you really mean to write “apart” or “a part”? The two are quite different!

      Normally the term “sub-species” is considered to involve more significant differences than “race” (which at one time just meant “type” or “variety”). So neanderthals would be considered a separate sub-species, while us modern humans are one species/sub-species merely divided into races. Furthermore, race as commonly understood is a biological concept. Culture/ethnicity are not, adopted children might belong to a different one than their biological parents.

      • oldoddjobs

        Using words like “population” or “clusters” might actually be a useful way around the American race neurosis.

      • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

        I’m skeptical, as long as it refers to the same thing. See Pinker on the “euphemism treadmill”. I guess scientists can use them in hopes the general public doesn’t figure out what they’re talking about.

    • Daniel Carrier

      I don’t see what advantage calling it “ethnicity” has. I have heard of race to refer to all humans, but only in the phrase “the human race”, or when a fantasy setting with non-human people is involved. I don’t see how the word can cause confusion.

  • Luke G.

    I have been confused about one discussion: does the concept of “race” exist in a way that has any utility? Is “race” really “not a coherent concept,” in the words of Tyler Cowen?

    If so, how so–why does race not exist as a coherent concept? Is it because the word’s connotations are so loaded–in which case, we simply need a new, different term? Is it because there is so much self-identification and cultural affiliation in the concept that “race” as a biological fact can’t be meaningfully parsed apart from it? Is it because the demarcation lines of races are too blurry to be meaningful? Is it because races can be “mixed,” making the concept moot?

    I am honestly confused by the discussion around the word “race.” **In what way does “race not exist”?**

    I do not have a personal stake in one answer or the other–like I said, I’m legitimately baffled.

    • IMASBA

      It’s all of the reasons you just listed. Race is not a rational definition, it’s useless, unless you define a race as the people who choose to affiliate with it, but then it just becomes an etnicity and we’re better off talking about etnicities.

      By etnicity I here mean the real meaning of the word, so having been raised in a certain lineage with a certain culture. Not the American practice of using it as a denomination for the tone of a person’s skin color.

      All of the stuff Robin talks about is about culture anyway so race doesn’t have to enter into it and it doesn’t in many countries, the US is very peculiar with its attitudes towards race, especially among developed countries. There’s no way a German university would ask you for your race on an application form or a Spanish high school would have racially-based social clubs.

      • Sean II

        Just completely, embarrassingly wrong. Race is one of the most useful ways to categorize human beings.

        Ever heard a doctor read a case study? They all start the same way: “An age-race-gender with a history of X presents to the clinic complaining of Y.”

        Now why do you suppose they do that?

      • IMASBA

        Doctors in my country do not do that, in fact doctors do not do that in most countries outside of the United States. American doctors give in to their society’s obsession with race, even though they know they have no simple scientific way of determinining race in a patient.

        Doctors in my country will use occupation and BMI, in rare cases the nationality, but not the skin color, except perhaps when the subject is of a dermatological nature.

      • brendan_r

        Sickle Cell Anemia is a social construct invented by racist US doctors.

      • IMASBA

        Sickle cell anemia is not a “black” thing, it’s a thing of certain sub-Saharan populations. It is for example much less common among African Americans and even certain African populations. Nevertheless it is indeed correlated with skin color in the US because dark-skinned Indians and Australian aboriginals are rare in the US. A skin condition could also be something where skin color is important. But this does not explain why race would be considered such an important factor (there are tonnes of other ailments that have nothing to do with skin color but instead with some other trait, such as education level).

      • Sean II

        Being Black and having a Sub-Saharan ancestry are the same thing. That’s what scientists mean when they say “black”.

        One possible solution since you don’t know what you’re talking about: talk less, until you do.

      • Sean II

        You don’t know what you’re talking about, bud.

        We have doctors from all over the world here, and I’ve never met one who had to be taught to include race in his H&P. They arrive with that habit firmly established.

        Perhaps you’d care to explain how this supposedly American race obsession gets into the minds of doctors who trained at places like Lagos State or Rajiv Gandhi MC?

    • brendan_r

      Luke, IMASBA has no idea what he’s talking about. Here’s a description of the “biological race isn’t real” absurdity:

      http://westhunt.wordpress.com/2012/01/26/lewontins-argument/

      • IMASBA

        Brendan, that link does not say what you seem to think it does. Race is not a rational definition because a) it’s pretty much skin deep (it would be much more rational to divide people by IQ than by color, which we don’t even do all the time: we don’t consider gingers a separate race for some reason) and b) there is no sane way to delineate where one race begins and another one ends. The fact that I have to explain this on a blog like this is frankly embarassing.

      • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

        Skin color is one thing that has been under (relatively) recent selection, but it’s far from the only thing. Other things which have been differentially selected in different areas are disease resistance and adaptations to varieties agriculture and/or animal husbandry (or lack thereof in the case of hunter-gatherers). Those are NOT skin deep, and there was never any reason to assume that only visibly identifiable features were under strong differential selection.

        The basis by which you’d like to group people is really up to you. The category “redhead” is not bogus, even if you don’t care much about it. Clustering algorithms seem fine categorizing people by ancestrally informative DNA markers, and if you don’t care about that, fine as well.

      • IMASBA

        “The basis by which you’d like to group people is really up to you.”

        yes, that’s my point! For some reason Americans have been lead to believe that race is some huge important categorization that says a lot about a person, more than any other categorization save gender. That’s just ridiculous.

        “Clustering algorithms seem fine categorizing people by ancestrally informative DNA markers”

        They divide people into haplogroups which don’t correspond that well with race. Unless of course you’re telling them to look for specific combinations of genes that we choose BECAUSE they correlate somewhat with our intuitive definition of races. Race cannot be biologically defined, this became painfully clear in places like Apartheid South-Africa where courts and politicians had to invent rules to determine who was officially black because there were many cases of “kinda brown” people.

      • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

        No, I don’t think you’ve kept up with what’s happened in genetics. Computers correspond with self-identification more than 99% of the time. And they can do this without hardcoding predefined markers. Tell it how many clusters to make and it will give the same results (because Lewontin’s fallacy is a fallacy, there are multiple genes all correlated with each other due to continental origin).

        As for “what’s important”, that is, we agree, subjective.

      • IMASBA

        How can it possibly be 99%? The number of brownish “mixed-race” is way too high for that. If you then include the, among Americans (but no one else really) widely accepted as a race, latinos in there too it gets even crazier. I’ve seen lily-white Americans self-identify as “latino” and it is pretty standard for brown Americans to self-identify as black even though they may very well be genetically closer to medieval Europeans than to medieval Africans (I’m using medieval people here as a standard because there really is no one of 100% racial purity on this planet, nor has there ever been anyone, because the concept is fuzzy). Or is the computer programmed to take this into account (and therefore really just trying to match people’s ideas rather than the true genetics)?

      • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

        The paper with 99.86% matches is here. Cluster analysis does not make the assumption that the clusters are discrete. It can handle overlap. Uighurs resemble mixed race individuals in that they are a combination of east asian and caucasian (or “west eurasian”), except the admixture event happened long ago (something we can tell from linkage disequilibrium). African Americans are basically all admixed (the population commonly used as exemplaries of SSA ancestry are the Yoruba, while Utah whites have been used as exemplary CEU), and “latino” is not a racial identity. Mestizo, zambo, pardo etc are (like Uihurs, the amixture goes back centuries).

        Whether a “pure” race exists depends on where you want to draw the line on categorizing races, but we have been finding recently that modern existing populations all seem to be admixtures of (once) separate populations which no longer exist in anything like pure form. In other words, there’s population substructure everywhere, with the Neandertals/Denisovans being some well known extinct examples. The relatively isolated Andaman islanders have been given as an example of what the Ancient South Indians of Reich et al might have been like, but there’s been so much time you really can’t conflate the two. An important point about the degree of admixture though: one instance of interbreeding per generation can be enough to prevent populations from diverging. And that didn’t happen.

      • IMASBA

        What I gather from the paper is that they try to infer predominant ancestry (black African, East-Asian, European or hispanic). This would conflict with the “one-drop rule” which is a cultural reality in the US and other countries and that’s why I find the 99.86% so baffling, but the authors do acknowledge there weren’t many people of questionable (mixed) ancestry participating in their research. It uses over 300 genetic markers to do the analysis, which is if I remember correctly quite a large part of the total human genetic diversity. The different kinds of chimpanzee can be distinguished using just 30 markers collected from only dozens of specimens, this while genetic variability among individual chimpanzees is greater than that among humans.

      • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

        Different varieties of chimpanzees diverged from each other a long time ago, we can expect big differences. Humans evolved from a subset of the proto-chimp population, that relatively recent “founder” effect is going to reduce genetic diversity. 300 markers is not really all that many though. Remove the between-population variance in humans and you’ve still got the bulk of it remaining.

      • IMASBA

        I’m just saying 326 markers is a lot compared to the numbers that are usually necessary to distinguish subspecies and races. It reeks of fishing, of training a computer to correspond with our arbitrary cultural ideas of kinship between humans, rather than the logical way of distinguishing important characteristics between humans. I guess one could argue that a swan is a particular white bird because a neural network can be trained to recognize them correctly 99.9% of the time, while that 0.1% of swans that are black do not just present an error but a contradiction of the premise that one can scientifically define swans as white birds, so one would argue incorrectly. Humans and computers too, struggle with “mixed-race” denominations because race is a cultural concept to begin with. There is no single gene or marker that is unique to what we culturally see as black Africans and found in all of those black Africans.

      • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

        As has been explained, it’s not being “trained” with data to reach a particular conclusion. It automatically figures out which markers to use when asked to come up with clusters. It doesn’t care about whether a gene has an “important” effect, it just treats them all as datapoints in a high dimensional space and looks for correlations.

        Regarding swans, if a computer was doing visual recognition (something we humans seem to still have an advantage in), you’d like it to be able to distinguish them from non-swans. And yes, within the swan category you might expect it to distinguish white from black, that would be a lot of pixel’s worth of data. I don’t know if black feathers are correlated with any other visible characteristic, although I’ve heard it’s restricted to Australia (and possibly neighboring areas).

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        It automatically figures out which markers to use when asked to come up with clusters.

        I’m not really conversant with cluster analysis, but it bears a family resemblance to factor analysis, which I’m more familiar with.

        Folks here probably know the Cattell-Horn-Carroll theory of intelligence. But there are other factor solutions that seem about as good, some say better. (For example, Philip Vernon’s approach, derived from Spearman, historically favored by British educational psychologists.) The rules used for rotating the axes makes a difference.

        One would think something similar applies to cluster analysis. (For one thing, the contours of the clusters vary based on the rules determining how many clusters to extract.) These rules are either arbitrary or depend on assumptions outside the analysis.

        Moreover, to the extent that the assumptions come from distinctions drawn by a given culture, they will tend to be organized around skin color, which as you say is a recent adaptation, making it an unlikely starting point.

      • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

        If you click the link to the paper, they discuss how they reran the analysis with a number of different k = {cluster count} parameters. Nowadays there are some standard programs for population genetics like ADMIXTURE, which Razib Khan gives a sort of tutorial for here. He was using a much wider set of genomes than were used in the old paper I linked, and so varied k from 2 to 12. There isn’t necessarily a “correct” value for k, it really depends on how deep you want to go. Of course not all genetic distances between clusters are going to e created equal in those high k runs, but even those smaller kinds of substructure are “real”, and whether you want to call something “race” seems like quibbling over semantics.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        OK, I finally clicked the link. I wonder whether the evidence based on a U.S. population supports universal generalization.

        A cluster will (I think) distinguish gene pools. America has long had one shade or another of a racial caste system. As a result, no doubt American blacks represent a distinct gene pool, but whether this has anything to do with “Negroes” in general is another question. (Similar if weaker arguments apply to the “Hispanic” group.)

        [I find it strange that any commonalities among American blacks are attributed to their (international) race. Surely slavery was itself an intense selection process. Wouldn't high intelligence be unwanted in a slave? (I really don't know.)]

      • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

        There probably was some degree of selection involved, and even differential ones for the US vs caribbean (where I believe the death rate was much higher). But you have to keep in mind the number of generations over which that selection effect operated. Much smaller than the number of generations in between Out-of-Africa and the discovery of the New World. For example, the necessity for salt retension on slave ships is probably not the cause of hypertension, since that’s not repeated over generations.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        But you have to keep in mind the number of generations over which that selection effect operated.

        If slaves were artificially selected–bred for “desirable” traits–couldn’t a few generations have substantial effect?

        There seems no consensus among historians on whether slaves were bred selectively (in the manner cattle might be bred). I find it hard to believe they weren’t. Physical strength would obviously be desirable in males, fertility in women. My guess is that a slaveowner wouldn’t want slaves who were too bright.

      • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

        That is a good point, since the Russian silver fox experiment shows that animal breeding can have large effects over a rather small number of generations. But I did not think the same thing occurred with slaves. My understanding was that family formation was rather autonomous, but that such families could still be split up by sales.

        Interestingly, most of the African slave trade went east rather than west to the New World, but without the same demographic effect because the males were castrated. The slaves in islamic territory were generally used for what Adam Smith would call “unproductive” labor, so there was less of an economic imperative in ensuring they could still breed.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        There are claims that family functioning was rather autonomous; but also evidence to the contrary not only in the reports of fugitive slaves but also in the slaveowners’ written advertisements for “breeding females” and “stud males.”

        I can see where they would want to maintain the family unit (although slaveowners had sexual rights to their own slaves, which they asserted), but I cannot believe they would leave pairings to chance (when so many cultures with arrangements less oppressive have tolerated arranged marriage). The testimony of the fugitive slaves also supports the view that often (usually?) slaves were paired by their masters.

        [If they were bred, they were bred for being good slaves. What does that mean? Perhaps a clue is that it was usually illegal for slaves to learn to read and write. The great fear was always rebellion.]

      • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

        Interesting, I wasn’t aware of those details.

      • IMASBA

        I’ve never heard of American slaves making intelligence tests. The environmental component of intelligence rarely had the opportunity to develop in an American slave while the genetic component was not tested for nor visible in daily life.

        If slaveowners wanted to select for intelligence they were probably very unsuccessful and based the selection around things like phrenology or the knowledge a slave possessed and their ability to read (which barely corresponds to intelligence because even stupid people can memorize things they happen to come across).

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        The genetic component would be visible by its correlate, the tendency to rebel or resist. Slave-rebellion was the all-pervasive fear.

        But in general, I think humans are well equipped natively to judge the intelligence of their fellows with minimal interaction. Intelligence tests have mostly dulled our native capacities to judge intelligence.

      • IMASBA

        “As has been explained, it’s not being “trained” with data to reach a particular conclusion.”

        It has to be given training data (samples from the “pure populations”), someone has to choose the “pure populations” (they probably chose the Yoruba because it’s a large ethnic group in West-Africa and West-Africa is where most Afro-American ancestry comes from) and it has to be given parameters.

        If you just gave a computer many genetic samples from around the world and told it to distill a small number of groups from that alone it would either fail or go along with something like haplogroups, it would definitely not place Khoisan and Fulani in the same group. If it came up with something like races at all it would come up with multiple African races and would probably not recognize hispanics as a separate group.

      • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

        No, the paper I linked did NOT train on Yoruba or Utah whites. But those two groups are commonly used in other popgen papers because they work well as “ideal types”.

        Yes, there is a substantial degree of population sub-structure in Africa, even pre-dating the Out-of-Africa event of modern homo sapiens! The linked paper deriving groups through cluster analysis did not have actual Africans in it, particularly not Khoi-San! That’s why when k=2 it was east asians who were separated while all those resident in America formed the other group (both hispanics and african americans generally have some European ancestry, and male-biased ancestry at that). If they had used a more representative sample of the world’s population k=2 would probably produce non-africans as the outgroup (and it would take a while before amerindians separated from east asians).

      • IMASBA

        Ok, that seems fair enough. I’ve read part of this paper as well as summaries of it and now I think I get it: the k-parameter decides the number of separate groups that will be looked for, and the whole thing looked at Americans and Taiwanese ancestry lines, but without comparing that to actual Africans. This then produces groups that can be classed as European, West-African, East-Asian and Amerindian. For some reason they didn’t have a lot of “mixed-race” participants or “white-hispanics” and hence they find a nice correspondence with self-identified race (also because there are few Afro-Americans of non-West-African ancestry).

        Still I wonder about the medical implications of this (they mention hypertension population research as their motivation): when an American has 75% West-African ancestry and 25% European ancestry they would show up as Afro-American and probably identify as such, but there’s a pretty good chance they would have the genes for a dark skin color but not the West-African genes that give a higher susceptibility to hypertension (unless all these genes happen to always be on the same chromosome). The second you start mixing populations group genetic become uncoupled. So the question is whether k=4 actually is the most useful in terms of medical research or really anything. If k=/=4 yields more usueful results (for example several prominent ailments being common among West-Africans but not among other Africans or among Northern-Europeans but not Southern-Europeans) than that pretty much destroys the value of traditional American race stereotypes (which already exclude Dravidians) and all those people here who claim race is “real” and has a deep biological basis would ahve to swallow their words.

      • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

        I don’t understand your point about skin color vs hypertension. I guess there are about five genes which contribute most of the variance for skin color, and if there were fewer for hypertension (I don’t actually know), a hybrid population would be more likely to have some of the former than the latter. Was that your point?

        I think you’re off base with talk of a “Dravidian” race. Reich’s paper on Indian population history indicates that ANI and ASI combined really far back, and it’s basically impossible to find an indigenous Indian group without ANI ancestry, even among the tribals in south India. So ANI may well be an an indicator of the original “Dravidians”, and not map very well onto language (see also Turkey and Hungary). An elite group can often impose its language easier than its genes.

        I don’t think a more complicated substructure around the world “destroys” race as a concept. It just makes it more complicated! Most African genes in the U.S come from west Africa, so that’s what we tend to think of as African (the relatively recent Bantu expansion happens to have made Africa more closely resemble that assumption). But if you used a more representative sample of the world’s population, west & east africans would still cluster together while out-of-africans would be an outgroup.

        I mentioned earlier that how fine-grained you want to get in determining the number of “races” is somewhat arbitrary. But I tried to also point out that at those high values of k some clusters will be less distinct. Talk of variation within continents (or what are generally considered the major racial groupings) reminds me to point out the reason those are typically thought of as “races” rather than smaller groups (although in the 19th century they may well have used the term “race” where we would use the more fine-grained “ethnic group”). Within continents you will typically find a lot of clinal variation, gradually shifting from one percentage to another. Geographic barriers disrupt that sort of smooth cline, giving rise to a more distinct clustering. That’s what gives rise to the common or “folk” notion that those are the “real” races.

      • IMASBA

        Heck, you could even make a neural network “show” that listening to music can be scientifically classified as fun because 95% of people find it fun, but again it’s that 5% that doesn’t find it fun that prevents such a classification from having scientific merit.

      • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

        How is something “unscientific” because it only applies to 95%? That’s a hell of a lot better than maximum entropy! I’ll grant that “fun” is subjective, but that’s another angle.

      • IMASBA

        It’s unscientific when the 5% disproves the other 95%, after all a scientific definition cannot be self-contradictory.

      • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

        What “definition” is contradictory? I think you mean to use a word like “determinate”, or maybe some terms from logic or set theory. Even a “rule of thumb” like Bergmann’s rule can be “scientific”.

      • IMASBA

        Yes, rules of thumb allow for some contradictions, they are in some form inevitable in biology (because even species are really part of a continuum, especially in time), but that rule of thumb disclaimer is never included when non-scientists talk about a biological basis for race, race is even worse because it also depends a lot on culture, whereas for species you can at least explain to a Martian that a species is most of the time a group of animals that can interbreed, while you’d have a hard time explaining to a Martian why it would be logical to group all Africans together as a race but do not include Dravidians in that group and we do separate East-Asians and Amerindians.

        I should have used the term “law of nature” or something like that because “scientific” can include rules of thumb.

      • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

        I’m confused by your point about culture. Dravidians aren’t really that related to Africans. Even the hypothesized ASI ancestral population is imagined to be somewhere between caucasian and east asian. Dark skin is just one phenotype, and even though Melanesians or indigenous Australians (probably a better example than Dravidians) may superficially resemble Africans in some ways, they are genetically quite distant.

        Good point about species though. Both “species” and “race” are somewhat fuzzy though. There have been attempts, like Ernst Mayr’s, to make “species” a more rigorous concept, but even that only works well with sexually reproducing types, and we typically consider lions and tigers to be separate species even though they can interbreed in captivity.

      • IAMSBA

        “I’m confused by your point about culture. Dravidians aren’t really that related to Africans.”

        Exactly: they’re as much a separate group as Europeans and East-Asians, yet American culture (heavily based on 19th and early 20th century European notions) does not count them as a race. By Dravidian I guess I mean ASI.

        “but even that only works well with sexually reproducing types, and we typically consider lions and tigers to be separate species even though they can interbreed in captivity.”

        Yeah, asexual reproduction messes up the concept. Tigers and lions rarely produce fertile offspring (fertility of the offspring is a condition for the species definition), but there are examples of animals we consider separate species that do yield fertile offspring quite reliably (“pizzly” bears being an example). It is in time that the concept of a species encounters an even bigger problem, for example how do you choose dinosaur species from among a continuous fossile database? I guess one way to do it would be to define currently living bird and reptile species and then define extinct species recursively (if you had a reliable mechanism for figuring out if two extinct animals could reproduce).

        “I don’t think a more complicated substructure around the world “destroys” race as a concept. It just makes it more complicated!”

        It destroys traditional notions of race and everything culturally associated with them, that would change a lot of things in societies. Overall it would show how arbitrary the concept is, which I think many people do not yet understand intuitively.

        “I don’t understand your point about skin color vs hypertension. I guess there are about five genes which contribute most of the variance for skin color, and if there were fewer for hypertension (I don’t actually know), a hybrid population would be more likely to have some of the former than the latter. Was that your point?”

        My point was that if those genes for hyprtension and skin color aren’t the same genes or at least located on the same chromosome you will get divergent properties. It might be that you have 3 black grandparents and 1 white grandparents. You then might have a dark skin and self-identify as black and an ancestry analysis would most likely agree (because you have a majority of black ancestors) but there’s a pretty good chance you won’t also have the (black) hypertension gene(s), it could also be the other way around: you have pale skin but carry the hypertension gene(s). This in addition to existing diversity: if an American doctor was used to check for hypertension in his Afro-American patients and he moves to Germany he might incorrectly suppose that he should check for hypertension in his Somali-descended patients there if he too strongly believes in the American cultural definition of race.

      • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

        The point out about time is important since, as I mentioned, there isn’t really a “pure” ASI population today we can use for comparison (although it’s been suggested they might have been something like Andaman islanders).

        You’re right that hypertension would be probabilistic, but I think that would be true even without admixture. I don’t know if it differs between Somalis and west africans, though that could well be the case.

      • Rafal Smigrodzki

        “yes, that’s my point! For some reason Americans have been lead to believe that race is some huge important categorization that says a lot about a person, more than any other categorization save gender. That’s just ridiculous.”
        Is it ridiculous to pay attention to a marker that lets you predict an up to 28 IQ point difference, and a 20 – 50 fold difference in likelihood of violent behavior, just by looking at a person?

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        It’s ridiculous to claim that race predicts 28 IQ points or a 20-fold difference in likelihood of violent behavior.

      • Rafal Smigrodzki

        You may consider familiarizing yourself with the relevant statistics comparing the mean IQ or the likelihood of committing a violent crime for an Ashkenazi American and a Bantu-descended American. And if you widen your comparison to the whole world, even more drastic differences in IQ and violence can be found.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        You’re not going to distinguish Ashkenazis by “just looking at a person.”

      • brendan_r

        Give geneticists genome info at a particular locus, and they can predict with high accuracy a) what they’d observe at other crucial loci, and b) that person’s self-professed racial identity.

        As TGGP points out, these clusters of differences correspond to numerous mental, digestive, structural, and mental differences.

        The basis by which you group people is sorta up to you as long as you don’t work in medicine, genetics, or any kind of social science that seeks to explain group differences. If you’re in those fields, you might want useful labels to refer to how Pygmies and Northern Europeans vary, other than culturally.

      • Ronfar

        “we don’t consider gingers a separate race for some reason”

        I think “Irish” used to be a race…

    • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

      why does race not exist as a coherent concept?

      Race may not be a coherent biological concept. (I have no quarrel with the term viewed as a social construct; and its denial seems like another attempt to sanitize language.)

      The debate among biologists isn’t mainly about the existence of genetic diversity between populations. It’s primarily whether it is useful to privilege a particular cluster analysis of genotypes where there’s really a continuum.

      Contrary to both sides here, the argument isn’t resolved among biologists and really has little (rational) political import. From wikipedia:

      “There is a wide consensus that the racial categories that are common in everyday usage are socially constructed, and that racial groups cannot be biologically defined.[17][18][19][20][21][22] Nonetheless, some scholars argue that racial categories obviously correlate with biological traits (e.g. phenotype) to some degree, and that certain genetic markers have varying frequencies among human populations, some of which correspond more or less to traditional racial groupings. For this reason there is no current consensus about whether racial categories can be considered to have significance for understanding human genetic variation.[23]“

      • Silent Cal

        Hooray sanity!

  • Economist Observer

    If this site is any indication about the behavior of graduate students and professors in economics profession then no doubt the profession as a whole is losing its relevance: http://www.econjobrumors.com/

    This site frequented by practitioners in economics profession is full of racist, homophobic, and misogynistic rants. Any kind of serious economics discussion is discouraged by the site owner and moderators. Vile threads and comments are not only tolerated but also encouraged.

    No wonder the profession is in such a mess now. Just have a look at that site and you will see what I mean.

    • efalken

      The bigot accusation is why people don’t like to talk about race. As these allegations are common and can seriously impede a person’s career, why get within 100 feet?

  • brendan_r

    What motivates political correctness enforcers? You say they’re employing a costly signal to keep good relations with “low” races. But many would say they’re signaling their moral superiority to more similar groups within their own race.

    It’s considered more polite to compliment jews and asians than wasps, even though wasps do objectively worse in most ways, which makes sense if PC is mostly about signaling association w/ civil rights heroes, and distance from civ rights villains. In other words, there’s a particular ranking that doesn’t quite fit high vs. low achievement.

    You suppose that squelching of racial talk probably reduces perception accuracy in many ways harmful to “low” races. Yet, is there any stereotypical difference between Asian and Black American’s that is objectively wrong?

    Mostly, it looks like stereotypes are true, and that speech codes reduce accuracy by biasing the perceived magnitude of racial gaps downward. Poll people in the Black/Asian rate of murder and STDs and I’m almost certain folks would underestimate differences. PC is effective.

    Also, I recall that race retains power in predicting credit default even after all the standard stuff is controlled for. That’s a similar instance of real gaps being larger than we’re supposed to admit.

    The info value of free speech would mostly be useful because you can’t fix a problem before you define it accurately, and defining many racial problems accurately will get you fired.

    • charlie

      I agree that a large part of PC talk-policing seems to be a about a culture war between whites.

      Some evidence of this is that there is a constantly changing vanguard of acceptable speech on race/gender/etc, which out-group whites will have a hard time keeping up with. This phenomenon is often satirized by comedians who use seemingly neutral terms (e.g. Jew, Mexican) and ask if they are “still ok” to say.

    • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

      What motivates political correctness enforcers? You say they’re employing a costly signal to keep good relations with “low” races. But many would say they’re signaling their moral superiority to more similar groups within their own race.

      All moralized politics works this way: it doesn’t distinguish PC, which gains its force from the need to maintain social peace.

      The enforcers of PC aren’t limited to a cadre of pompous liberals! Try getting police protection if violence ensues after you utter a forbidden epithet to a black person.

      • brendan_r

        Ha, well, if PC is designed to maintain social peace it is designed strangely.

        Promoting the idea that for any racial gap, Racism caused it, R^2=0.99, seems a bad strategy for keeping low achieving groups peaceful.

        Good point- most political ideas are about moral status whoring. Doesn’t distinguish PC. But “PC exists because it’s harmonious”, or something like that, doesn’t come close to explaining it. A fundamental fact about PC is that its most hardcore enforcers are savvy Ivy League elites. You see where I’m going…heresy and all that.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        Promoting the idea that for any racial gap, Racism caused it, R^2=0.99, seems a bad strategy for keeping low achieving groups peaceful.

        It’s a good strategy if the out group is already strongly convinced of the premise.

        A fundamental fact about PC is that its most hardcore enforcers are savvy Ivy League elites.

        Where would a strategy for harmonizing relations come from if not the white elites?

      • brendan_r

        “Where would a strategy for harmonizing relations come from if not the white elites?”

        Grass roots emergence! Just kidding. But seriously, who has weaker personal incentives for promoting harmony than Ivy elites?

        PC’s objective doesn’t look like harmony; it looks designed to prevent noticing that the assumptions underlying the Left’s baby, civil rights, haven’t proved out. In short, elite self-justification.

        Or something like that: single factor explanations for how we ended up in a place where an American CEO can be fired for donating to traditional marriage causes are probably silly.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        But seriously, who has weaker personal incentives for promoting harmony than Ivy elites?

        Are you kidding? For how it all began, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Columbia_University_protests_of_1968

        Elite universities are often located deep in the inner cities. Columbia was located in black Harlem. Columbia adopted PC directly to stave off the Harlem riots.

        PC’s objective doesn’t look like harmony; it looks designed to prevent noticing that the assumptions underlying the Left’s baby, civil rights, haven’t proved out.

        You think the assumptions of civil rights (including such measures championed by the left and opposed by the right like eliminating Jim Crow) is based (primarily) on false assumptions? Even I might be too PC to discuss that calmly.

        If you substitute for civil rights affirmative action, I could see what you’re driving at, although I think you would be putting the cart before the horse.

      • brendan_r

        The ability to protect yourself from societal chaos increases with wealth. The typical Columbia academic probably has fewer interesting stories to tell than these guys: http://www.humanevents.com/2012/12/23/when-assault-weapons-saved-koreatown/

        Is eliminating Jim Crow an “assumption”? You freaked out and misinterpreted me. Assumptions are more like:
        a) forced integration will result long-term in voluntary integration,
        b) political power is an important determinant of group success (wassup w/ detroit? where’s the Chinese Congressional Caucus?),
        c) school spending differences explain educational gaps (and many other assumptions flow naturally from this).

        Folks who opposed the civ rights act might be immoral, but their predictions of its effects, grounded in their own assumptions, have plausibly been more accurate.

        anyway, have the last word, ive said mine.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        I should copy this as an example of how easy it is (for me) to be unclear. I meant eliminating Jim Crow as an example of civil rights, not of an assumption regarding them. (Ambiguous as written.) I understood you to oppose civil rights (hence, eliminating Jim Crow) because you not only said it was based on false assumptions but also because it’s the “Left’s baby.” I don’t think it was an unfair inference even if it’s wrong and you would favor eliminating Jim Crow. [I only raised the point because I think the right's opposition to basic civil rights demonstrated the right's utter bankruptcy. Usually, rightists try to forget.]

        I understand now how you maintain PC defends false assumptions. As I said, I think that puts the cart before the horse because it doesn’t explain why these particular assumptions are so valued. Institutions change their official rationales harmlessly on other subjects. [The assumptions derive from the consensus among social scientists in the postwar period. In retrospect, some of these expectations were an ideological (over) reaction to the Nazi view on race. To some extent, it was due to lack of knowledge about human beginnings and early migration patterns.]

      • JW Ogden

        It seems to me it is a good strategy if the if the out group is small and weak. The out group is so weak they are not a threat.

        Also though I find the subject interesting, I think it may be best to not discuss it.

  • http://www.phoenixism.net/ Socially Extinct

    It’s very insightful that you demarcated between 2 types of “un-PC” talk:

    1) Bashing the Broken

    2) Stroking the Supreme

    Though they are both prohibited expression, they are nothing alike.

    #1 is never uttered openly except among your most trusted, intimate circles (or in your head)

    #2 may be expressed “openly” but only very carefully and delicately in such a manner that recognition of such attributes is not an exclusive talent of the group in question (ie, X-race does really well and subject aX thinks b- and c-X’a are equally capable of said skill set).

    • Sean II

      2) can also be done safely, provided you mix in a bit of irony.

      For example…about 1/3 of the items on the famous SWPL list are really humble brags about white people and their culture.

      In fact, the very existence of things like SWPL is one huge humble brag, because it says “Hey, look how introspective we can be” and more importantly, it says “Notice we are secure enough NOT to demand sensitivity from others”.

  • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

    Our choice to ban saying bad things about “low” races and genders, or saying good things about “high” races and genders, was clearly a costly signal, and it did send the message “we care enough about keep good relations with you to pay this cost.”

    Excellent diagnosis. But it isn’t a peculiarly American bargain. All multicultural societies have adopted this “solution.” Political correctness is the ideology of multiculturalism.

    But, then, you advocate mass immigration. (And my guess is your commitment to that goal is stronger than your commitment to the informational value of free speech.)

    Our
    choice to ban saying bad things about “low” races and genders,
    or saying good things about “high” races and genders, was clearly a
    costly signal, and it did send the message “we care enough about keep
    good relations with you to pay this cost.” – See more at:
    http://www.overcomingbias.com/2014/05/lets-talk-about-race.html#disqus_thread
    Our
    choice to ban saying bad things about “low” races and genders,
    or saying good things about “high” races and genders, was clearly a
    costly signal, and it did send the message “we care enough about keep
    good relations with you to pay this cost.” – See more at:
    http://www.overcomingbias.com/2014/05/lets-talk-about-race.html#disqus_thread

  • Noumenon72

    Could use an example of how discussing academia openly lets you judge in unfamiliar contexts and roles, like say, how a sociology professor entering government would behave.

  • Rao

    “I remember (as a kid) seeing characters argue about the differing features of various races, genders, etc. Claims were made, rebutted, etc. – ”

    Could someone please give me an example of this? I’m not suggesting it didn’t happen, I just have no idea what it might look like.

    • Robin Hanson

      Try the TV show All in the Family.

  • IMASBA

    Robin, what does sharing information about subcultures have to do with talking about “high” and “low” races? It just so happens that black Americans have a predominant common origin and often live together, so that there is a strong correlation between black people and “black culture”, but this is not true for other groups in America or for black people in other countries.

    • http://about.me/mdcbowen Michael DC Bowen

      ‘black culture’ is assumed to be universal and low. That’s why people today have a very difficult time understanding why Apple is buying Beats, and why most people who can name three classical composers cannot name three Marsalis brothers.

  • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

    One thing’s for sure: one wouldn’t want to hold such a discussion with Capehart himself:

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-partisan/wp/2014/05/13/racist-and-repugnant-donald-sterling-doesnt-believe-in-magic/?wpisrc=nl_popns

  • http://about.me/mdcbowen Michael DC Bowen

    Just a data point. When I was one of a large integrating group of black students at what had been a largely white prep school in 1974, I heard a lot of presumptions about ‘what you people have been through’ that was already part of the assumptions that got us invited to integrate in the first place.

    At a high level of society where certain indignities are met with rage, invective and recourse (imagine what might happen if you called Secretary of State Hilary Clinton ‘a dumb cunt’), I perceived an interesting dualism. The primary civil gesture is a kind of condescending sympathy towards those insulted. “My dad is a bank president, if somebody treated him like a nigger, heads would roll”. On the other hand there is an upper class burden on becoming conduct that blacks were presumed not to assume. So our stiff upper lips were discounted in that same backhanded way. “You’re actually lucky; you have no idea how hard it is to deal with men like my father.” That whole slumming Bullworth vibe, and racial authenticity establishes a kind of class double standard.

    I raise this because there is a seemingly permanent dissonance over matters of racism in ‘high’ and ‘low’ races because the rage, invective and recourse of the low race is privileged – and it’s easy to do so when the expected prizes are faits accompli for the high race. So anytime a black man in NYC is snubbed for a cab, it’s OK to complain and have this insult as representative of the pain of racisms attack on dignity and social mobility.

    So long as the rage and invective don’t require recourse to the very source of the high race’s power, then the double standard is acceptable. And for the most part this has been the case, because the level of power deemed acceptable to a racially weighted negotiation has been relatively low. I always make mention that the SCLC once gathered 15,000 Negroes to the streets to protest inequality that was satiated by the hiring of 3 to be cashiers in a Southern drugstore. Today the same kind of legitimated ‘black rage’ asks for a 575 million dollar forfeiture of a pro sports team.

    There is no open market dialog that sets the price of racism. Each team gins up their own numbers and makes gestures of obeisance to totems like ‘Affirmative Action’ or NAACP Image Awards or the word ‘diversity’.

    I say there are two camps in America. Those who wish for matters of justice to hold NO regard to race, and those who prefer ‘social justice’ with SPECIFIC regard to race. The latter camp thinks they have the set the perfect price, but they have no idea.

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      Yes, the extra permission to rage works like the ban on saying bad things about them, to mark them as clearly different and ranked.

  • Rafal Smigrodzki

    Robin wrote:

    “We might have been better off to instead pay a different kind of cost, such as cash transfers.”
    Actually, we do have significant cash transfers as well. Women are well-paid by the state for initiating a divorce which is why about 80% of divorces are initiated by women. And how many trillions of dollars have been spent in the “War on Poverty”?