Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The problem with race-based scientific studies

My comments on a U.S. News and World Report article about a prostate-cancer study in the "Multiethnic Cohort" (http://health.usnews.com/articles/health/healthday/2009/09/01/adult-weight-gain-tied-to-prostate-cancer-risk.html):

This is a common problem in so many studies that try to find the effect of "race" on anything. Doing studies and reporting results in terms of race is a great way to look for data that will justify racist attitudes (which is what gives "race" any meaning it has, after all), but it is a horrible way to study anything scientifically. Genes, lifestyle, education level, socioeconomic status, proximity to a pollution source, etc., all lend themselves to scientific studies that will show "clear-cut" cause-and-effect relationships, when they exist. Race-based studies are used, in too many cases, to mask socioeconomic-based problems (which could be solved) as being race-based problems (which cannot). For example, a study of which races save most for retirement will likely show Asians saving more than whites, whites more than blacks, blacks more than Hispanics, and Hispanics more than Native Americans. The headlines will talk about a study showing that minorities are not saving enough for retirement. The proposed solution will be some kind of public-service announcement aimed at minorities to save more. If the same study were redone but, instead of reporting results by race, it reported them by households earning $0 to $9,999 per year, $10,000 to $19,999 per year, ..., $90,000 to $99,999 per year, $100,000 to ... etc., then you would see a "clear-cut" relationship between household income and retirement savings! It is not that "those Hispanics" are poor savers (and what can any of us do about their being Hispanic??), but that poor people are poor savers. As you see study after study that is reported by race, it becomes more and more clear that the results of those studies do little to advance science and do much to preserve the status quo.

Genes, environment, and lifestyle are legitimate subjects of scientific study in the search for knowledge about human diseases; race is not. Race is not a by-product of genes; it is a concept created by racism. Race is real only because racism is real, and race continues to exist only because racism does. Let's stop pretending that it has a scientific basis. That is so 19th century and this is the 21st.