I don’t have time or inclination to do a detailed analysis of this piece in Vox, Charles Murray is once again peddling junk science about race and IQ. Most people really don’t care about the details, so what’s the point?
But in a long piece one section jumped out to me in particular because it is false:
Murray talks about advances in population genetics as if they have validated modern racial groups. In reality, the racial groups used in the US — white, black, Hispanic, Asian — are such a poor proxy for underlying genetic ancestry that no self-respecting statistical geneticist would undertake a study based only on self-identified racial category as a proxy for genetic ancestry measured from DNA.
Obviously the Census categories are pretty bad and not optimal (e.g., the “Asian American” category pools South with East & Southeast Asians, and that has caused issues in biomedical research in the past). But the claim is false. In the first half of the 2000s the eminent statistical geneticist Neil Risch specifically addressed this issue. From 2002 in Genome Biology Categorization of humans in biomedical research: genes, race and disease:
A debate has arisen regarding the validity of racial/ethnic categories for biomedical and genetic research. Some claim ‘no biological basis for race’ while others advocate a ‘race-neutral’ approach, using genetic clustering rather than self-identified ethnicity for human genetic categorization. We provide an epidemiologic perspective on the issue of human categorization in biomedical and genetic research that strongly supports the continued use of self-identified race and ethnicity.
A major discussion has arisen recently regarding optimal strategies for categorizing humans, especially in the United States, for the purpose of biomedical research, both etiologic and pharmaceutical. Clearly it is important to know whether particular individuals within the population are more susceptible to particular diseases or most likely to benefit from certain therapeutic interventions. The focus of the dialogue has been the relative merit of the concept of ‘race’ or ‘ethnicity’, especially from the genetic perspective. For example, a recent editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine  claimed that “race is biologically meaningless” and warned that “instruction in medical genetics should emphasize the fallacy of race as a scientific concept and the dangers inherent in practicing race-based medicine.” In support of this perspective, a recent article in Nature Genetics  purported to find that “commonly used ethnic labels are both insufficient and inaccurate representations of inferred genetic clusters.” Furthermore, a supporting editorial in the same issue  concluded that “population clusters identified by genotype analysis seem to be more informative than those identified by skin color or self-declaration of ‘race’.” These conclusions seem consistent with the claim that “there is no biological basis for ‘race'”  and that “the myth of major genetic differences across ‘races’ is nonetheless worth dismissing with genetic evidence” . Of course, the use of the term “major” leaves the door open for possible differences but a priori limits any potential significance of such differences.
In our view, much of this discussion does not derive from an objective scientific perspective. This is understandable, given both historic and current inequities based on perceived racial or ethnic identities, both in the US and around the world, and the resulting sensitivities in such debates. Nonetheless, we demonstrate here that from both an objective and scientific (genetic and epidemiologic) perspective there is great validity in racial/ethnic self-categorizations, both from the research and public policy points of view.
From a 2005 interview:
Gitschier: Let’s talk about the former, the genetic basis of race. As you know, I went to a session for the press at the ASHG [American Society for Human Genetics] meeting in Toronto, and the first words out of the mouth of the first speaker were “Genome variation research does not support the existence of human races.”
Risch: What is your definition of races? If you define it a certain way, maybe that’s a valid statement. There is obviously still disagreement.
Gitschier: But how can there still be disagreement?
Risch: Scientists always disagree! A lot of the problem is terminology. I’m not even sure what race means, people use it in many different ways.
In our own studies, to avoid coming up with our own definition of race, we tend to use the definition others have employed, for example, the US census definition of race. There is also the concept of the major geographical structuring that exists in human populations—continental divisions—which has led to genetic differentiation. But if you expect absolute precision in any of these definitions, you can undermine any definitional system. Any category you come up with is going to be imperfect, but that doesn’t preclude you from using it or the fact that it has utility.
We talk about the prejudicial aspect of this. If you demand that kind of accuracy, then one could make the same arguments about sex and age!
You’ll like this. In a recent study, when we looked at the correlation between genetic structure [based on microsatellite markers] versus self-description, we found 99.9% concordance between the two. We actually had a higher discordance rate between self-reported sex and markers on the X chromosome! So you could argue that sex is also a problematic category. And there are differences between sex and gender; self-identification may not be correlated with biology perfectly. And there is sexism. And you can talk about age the same way. A person’s chronological age does not correspond perfectly with his biological age for a variety of reasons, both inherited and non-inherited. Perhaps just using someone’s actual birth year is not a very good way of measuring age. Does that mean we should throw it out? No. Also, there is ageism—prejudice related to age in our society. A lot of these arguments, which have a political or social aspect to them, can be made about all categories, not just the race/ethnicity one.
Risch is not obscure. In the piece the author observes that Risch ‘was described by one of the field’s founding fathers [of the field] as “the statistical geneticist of our time.’
2005 is a long way from 2017. Risch may have changed his mind. In fact, it is probably best for him and his reputation if he has changed his mind. I wouldn’t be surprised if Risch comes out and engages in a struggle session where he disavows his copious output from 2005 and earlier defending the utilization of race as a concept in statistical genetics.
Also, genotyping is cheap enough and precise enough that one might actually make an argument for leaving off any self-reported ancestry questions. It’s really not necessary. This isn’t 2005.
But that section in the Vox piece is simply false. The existence of Risch refutes it. Vox is a high profile website which serves to “explain” things to people. The academics who co-wrote that piece are very smart, prominent, and known to me. I don’t plan on asking them why they put that section in there. I think I know why.
There will be no update to that piece I’m sure. It will be cited widely. It will become part of what “we” all know. Who I am to disagree with Vox? This is journalism from what have been able to gather and understand. The founders of Vox are rich and famous now. Incentives matter. There are great journalists out there who don’t misrepresent topics which I know well. But the incentive structure is not to reward this. More often storytellers who tell you the story you like to be told are rewarded.
As for science and the academy? I am frankly too depressed to say more.