Monday, January 28, 2013

An Academic Smackdown: Refuting the Piss Poor Social Science Claim that "Poverty is in Our Genes"

We present a critique of a paper written by two economists, Quamrul Ashraf and Oded Galor, which is forthcoming in the American Economic Review and which was uncritically highlighted in Science magazine..
In their study, Ashraf and Galor argue that there are strong links between population genetic diversity and the per-capita income of nation states, even after accounting for factors like geography and land productivity. They further contend that the United States, Europe, and Asia are affluent because they have optimal genetic diversity, while developing nations in Africa and the Americas are impoverished because they have either too much or too little genetic diversity.

Ashraf and Galor have attempted to use human genetic data to contend that the level of diversity present in a population as humans spread out and peopled the world has caused long-lasting effects on economic development. They claim that high genetic diversity (common in African populations) increases the incidence of distrust and conflict, which causes social instability and lower productivity. 
In addition, they argue that populations that are relatively genetically homogeneous (such as Native Americans) are at an economic disadvantage because genetic diversity increases competition and thus innovation. Ashraf and Galor arrive at the controversial conclusion that colonialism might have had a positive effect on development in Africa and the Americas by changing the genetic composition of the colonized territories.
It would seem that what we have here is a Goldilocks theory which purports to link "genetic diversity" in human populations with a given society's economic success and productivity. Unlike that fairy tale, all of the porridge served by Ashraf and Galor is toxic.

I am generally loathe to participate in conversations about the specious link between genes and societal "success." One of my objections is practical. The human biodiversity crowd are either explicitly in bed with, and/or greatly overlap with white supremacists. I have no use for their venom and lies.

As an empirical matter, the foundational claim(s) that there is something "genetic" about socially constructed groups known as "races," and that macro-level social outcomes can be imputed from individual genes in mass lacks both parsimony and rigor. There are simply too many variables involved. Moreover, the base constructs lack validity as individual members of different "races" have more in common genetically with people of different "racial groups" than they do with each other.

I decided to make an exception for the article, Is Poverty in Our Genes? A Critique of Ashraf and Galor, “The ‘Out of Africa’ Hypothesis, Human Genetic Diversity, and Comparative Economic Development.”


Post racial discourse is predicated upon an erroneous assumption: in the shadow of the Holocaust, old fashioned racism was slayed by the civil rights movement(s) and its allies in the academic, social justice, and scientific communities.

Here, claims of biological determinism are just too antiquated and primitive to be taken seriously. I have long-countered that eugenics, phrenology, and the other assorted scientific enterprises which supported global white supremacy have simply evolved. There are technologies of race. The effort to use the emerging science about the human genome to legitimate long-standing racial ideologies which judge non-whites to be inferior is not new. It is simply an example of the new technologies of white supremacist "racecraft" in practice.

I am also fond of watching a good academic butt whooping delivered on purveyors of piss poor social science research. "Is Poverty in Our Genes?" is a clinic. There can be no greater insult than suggesting to a bunch of economists that 1) they got their math wrong and 2) said researchers quite frankly do not know what they are talking about, and therefore need to go back to playing in their own sandbox.
Ignoring for the moment the fact that Ashraf and Galor have made a serious error in their interpretation of genetic diversity and migratory distance, the remaining variables in their model, including prehistoric population densities and geographic control factors, are poorly chosen. They do not reference the broader literature in archaeology or anthropology and thus demonstrate a critical lack of knowledge. Moreover, their poor choice of data sources leads to serious inaccuracies in their dependent variable of population density as well as in their control variables...
Without proper methodology and data analysis standards, false positives are likely to be misunderstood as facts, and these can then be mobilized in the political arena. Ashraf and Galor’s (2013) paper is based on a fundamental scientific misunderstanding, bad data, poor methodology, and an uncritical theoretical framework. While the attempt to create interdisciplinary studies that link anthropology, genetics, and economics is laudable, economists should consult with specialists in those fields to avoid making such uninformed blunders. The same should be true of the peer-review process for such interdisciplinary articles.
Ultimately, the conclusion of "Is Poverty in Our Genes?" is the closest an academic writing for a journal will ever get to the moment when an emcee drops the mic after defeating a rival in battle:
We are not concerned here with the authors’ own social or political attitudes. Rather, we wish to emphasize the irresponsibility of bad science. In the social sciences, scientific methods are an extremely powerful tool for analyzing trends in an empirically demonstrable manner and thus have the important opportunity to guide political action. When used improperly or when it is of dubious quality, however, science can become a justification for reactionary policy. The dismal nature of economics is often appealed to when facts contradict a desired reality. However, we are not arguing a case for blissful ignorance. What we see in Ashraf and Galor’s study is the worst of all worlds: something false and undesirable.
Did you feel that body blow? I actually hurt--just a little bit--for Ashraf and Galor.
You are forewarned. The white nationalist and reactionary conservative "black and brown folks have bad culture crowd" are going to be pushing Ashraf and Galor's "research" as proof of their standing decision rule that non-whites are defective and "primitive" as compared to "Europeans."

They will take the dismantlement of Ashraf and Galor as evidence of the power and truth of the Goldilocks genes as destiny thesis (likely ignoring the suggestion that a modest amount of genetic diversity across populations is a net positive). The White Right loves math--even when it does not support their conclusions, and stands in disagreement with the facts offered by empirical reality. I doubt that they are aware of the irony.


MaryK said...

This supports my reasoning as an undergraduate to NEVER study economics!

Now, if you want to discuss the theories of Thomas Malthus as they were put into "practical" use in late seventeenth-early eighteenth century Ireland, and later in other British colonial territories, then I can go there. But as a dear friend and grad classmate agreed, "there is no such thing as post-colonialism." She's Nigerian and had reason to say so.

Any "theory" that uses poverty to prove something is wrong with a race and/or nationality of people, has intrinsic value to the ruling class. Malthus enabled several centuries of the English aristocracy to justify maltreating the Irish, Africans, and others, because it was their fault that they were poor; Malthus said so.

chauncey devega said...

Econ is your friend. But it is rife with this type of thinking. Thus, the joke about "liberal" academics. I didn't make the connection to Malthus. Good catch.

nicoleandmaggie said...

Hey! Don't paint all economists with the same brush!

I don't have anything intelligent to say about this article-- I see it's the lead article in the AER this issue ("The 'Out of Africa' Hypothesis, Human Genetic Diversity, and Comparative Economic Development"), but I probably won't get a chance to read it.

And yes, I think economists need to be very careful with how their research can be misused and abused for policy purposes. It is a heavy responsibility that not everybody pays attention to. (And for some, that misuse and abuse is their aim to begin with.) I'm still irritated about a super-crappy article that claimed that menstruation is the reason for women's lower labor market earnings that was published much higher than it should have been, had all women who questioned its methodology branded as hysterical, and finally ended up with another set of (male) authors showing that the study was totally flawed and didn't stand up to more testing.

chauncey devega said...

Very fair point. We need to be precise.

But, I thought differential wages in the labor market across lines of gender was caused by women being locked away in their menstrual huts for one week a month? insert snark.

It is good to see a leading journal issuing a smackdown to this eugenics biodiversity mess.

sarah2s said...

They are not unaware they just would rather spout their brand of hatered