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'Race & Genetics' panel unpacks racism, misconceptions in field

Scholars discuss connection between race, genetics, misuse of science to justify bigotry

“You're always going to have people who look to science to justify racism and skepticism,” said C. Brandon Ogbunu, a Yale assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. “Our job as scientists is to make (skeptics) have to be more and more magical about the way that they get there.”

Ogbunu was one of three panelists at “Race & Genetics,” a discussion sponsored by the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America and the Office of the Provost March 24. The panel was part of the Center’s “Race &” in America series.

Associate Professor of Biology, Director of the Center for Computational Molecular Biology and Associate Professor of Computer Science Sohini Ramachandran and Assistant Professor of Biostatistics Lorin Crawford also spoke at the event.

The panelists discussed common misconceptions about the relationship between race and genetics and the subsequent misuse of science to justify bigotry. 

“What worries me a lot as a population geneticist right now is where engagement online is coming from, with respect to the latest population, genetics and medical genetics studies,” Ramachandran said. “The bulk of online engagement with medical genetic studies and population genetics studies is coming from white supremacist groups.”

Ramachandran cited an example of white supremacists chugging milk to “demonstrate their whiteness and this special adaptation (lactose tolerance) that they have.” 

“The funding of genetic studies being concentrated in the West gives a lot of oxygen to these kinds of views,” Ramachandran said. “This fascination with certain aspects of medical and genetic literature and the way that it highlights our differences is really problematic.”

Ogbunu added that though the field of genetics is extremely important and “encodes a staggering and important amount of information and instructions” for society, its value as an explanatory science is often oversimplified and thus misused by certain groups.

“When you take those truisms and you fail to identify the giant gap between the truths that genetics offers and the notion that we can use differences in DNA to explain the vast diversity ... of human experience,” Ogbunu said, “this is where the problem resides.”

“It becomes toxic when DNA information can be used to explain history and rationalize historical trajectories of different individuals,” Ogbunu added.

The panelists also considered the complexities within the field of genetic science that experts still need to tackle.

“Thinking about language and how we define groups, in terms of statistical methodology right now, a lot of people are thinking about how to understand the differences and similarities across individuals,” Crawford said. “And what I've realized in my viewpoint of working on these methods is that we don't really have standardized language to deal with this.” 

Crawford, who specializes in the use of computational methods to address problems in statistical genetics, also raised the issue of algorithmic bias in data collection and research.

“The big thing I really want to take away from here is the idea that complex data really (does) need complex methods,” Crawford said. He explained the importance of “interdisciplinary research” to “build and better inform methodology” when studying genetics and personalized medicine, which can include the use of genetic information to make treatment decisions about patients.

Ramachandran explained that in order to avoid widespread misconceptions about genetics, schools must provide more accurate curricula.  

“The way that we're taught genetics in primary school is completely false and oversimplifies the genetic architecture of traits,” she said, citing an example of Punnett squares predicting eye color as “totally problematic and not actually how pigmentation of any of our body, especially our eyes, is governed.”

The oversimplification and misrepresentation of genetics at an early age can contribute to later misconceptions about race and other traits, Ogbuno said. The concept of genetics explaining race relations is “fraught with really, really problematic reasoning.” 

“It's all an attempt to get a shortcut about the way the world works,” Ogbunu added. “Our job is to get everyone to the point where if you want to be a sexist, you just have to be a sexist,” he said. “If you want to be a racist, be a racist. You cannot ask genetics for help.”


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