Monday, March 21, 2005

Race doesn't exist, because if it did, that'd be bad!

The following is a Letter to the Editor of the New York Times:

To the Editor: Race is not a fact rooted in nature, but an ideology that justifies treating people differently based on the meanings we attribute to physical differences. When people are subjected to poor treatment, diagnostic delay and unhealthy environments because of the color of their skin, "race" impairs their health. The ideology of race can have real biological consequences.

Lynn M. Morgan
South Hadley, Mass.
March 15, 2005
(The writer is an anthropology professor at Mount Holyoke College.)

This is a clear case of an Argument to Consequences. In fact, she herself says so: "Race is not a fact rooted in nature, but an ideology… The ideology of race can have real biological consequences." Maybe it can have biological consequences, but this is evidence of bigotry, not evidence against race as a 'fact' rooted in nature. If people attempt to use any 'fact' to justify racism - they are making the Naturalistic Fallacy - attempting to derive ought (as in 'we should') from is - and should be vehemently rebutted on this ground. But the perceived risk of bigotry 'justified' by scientific discovery is not reason for arguing that the discovery is false.

She also has engaged in a few more fallacies in this letter. She makes an anthropological Factoid Propagation with race is: "…an ideology". And shows her Simple Minded Certitude with the statement: "Race is not a fact rooted in nature…".

Here are some extracts from the article she was responding to:

…a 2002 study by scientists at the University of Southern California and Stanford showed that if a sample of people from around the world are sorted by computer into five groups on the basis of genetic similarity, the groups that emerge are native to Europe, East Asia, Africa, America and Australasia - more or less the major races of traditional anthropology.

Ironically, the acceptance of the genetic basis of race will have, if anything, positive consequences. It's not racist to individualize the treatment and prevention of disease based on race, if there are clear differences in the efficacy of these treatments and prevention techniques between racial groups. To do anything but would be sheer folly:

…the recognition of race may improve medical care. Different races are prone to different diseases. The risk that an African-American man will be afflicted with hypertensive heart disease or prostate cancer is nearly three times greater than that for a European-American man. On the other hand, the former's risk of multiple sclerosis is only half as great. Such differences could be due to socioeconomic factors. Even so, geneticists have started searching for racial differences in the frequencies of genetic variants that cause diseases. They seem to be finding them.

Race can also affect treatment. African-Americans respond poorly to some of the main drugs used to treat heart conditions - notably beta blockers and angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors. Pharmaceutical corporations are paying attention. Many new drugs now come labeled with warnings that they may not work in some ethnic or racial groups.

The author of this article is careful to qualify all of the above with the following caveat, thus avoiding any Unfounded Generalizations:

Such differences are, of course, just differences in average. Everyone agrees that race is a crude way of predicting who gets some disease or responds to some treatment. Ideally, we would all have our genomes sequenced before swallowing so much as an aspirin. Yet until that is technically feasible, we can expect racial classifications to play an increasing part in health care.

Ignoring scientific discoveries to (falsely) feel morally superior does no-one any favours. We need to deal with reality, not fantasy.