Total Drek

Or, the thoughts of several frustrated intellectuals on Sociology, Gaming, Science, Politics, Science Fiction, Religion, and whatever the hell else strikes their fancy. There is absolutely no reason why you should read this blog. None. Seriously. Go hit your back button. It's up in the upper left-hand corner of your browser... it says "Back." Don't say we didn't warn you.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Well, that was comparatively complementary.

The Scene: Drek and his father are having a conversation on the phone, in which Drek's Dad mentions a PBS program he listens to.

Dad: So they had some damned sociologist on from the University?

Drek Uh-huh.

Dad: And he's talking about this research relating stress and prejudice and... uh... health?

Drek: Prejudice causes stress, which leads to poor health outcomes?

Dad: Right. Right. He was saying that people who experience prejudice are stressed and have worse health. And the interviewer- she was some gal from the University too, a Professor- she was saying, don't some ethnic groups have predispositions to some disorder?

Drek: Okay.

Dad: But this guy, he was saying, 'No, no. We're all the same. Different ethnic groups don't get certain disorders more than others.'

Drek: Except we know that's not true.

Dad: Exactly! So here's this guy- and his data don't even speak to this- just spouting off on this political line. He looks like a goddamn idiot.

Drek: Well, if it makes you feel any better, think how annoyed I would have been if I'd been listening to him. I mean, first, there's the bad argument and, second, he makes my discipline look like a bunch of idiots.

Dad: Yeah, that's the thing! He makes all of sociology look ridiculous when a lot of you guys are real scientists. That's what made me so mad.

Drek: Oh.... thanks!

Considering my family has for a lot of years assumed that "sociologist" means "post-modern communist" I'm actually rather touched at this exchange. Seriously.

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Blogger Steven said...

Sorry Drek. I’m glad you and your dad had a moment, but I think you're all wet on this one. Or at least partially wet.

The problem is in the idea of scientifically grouping by "ethnic group". Sickle cell developed as an adaptation against malaria, so it appears in those whose ancestors lived in malarial regions. In the U.S., this most commonly is seen in the "ethnic group" we call "African Americans", though it won't appear in anyone whose ancestors lived in non-malarial regions of Africa, despite their "ethnic group". The other side of that coin is that sickle cell appears in very high concentration in populations living where malaria was common, but who are not in the "ethnic group" we're thinking of. Greeks, for example.

So there is a correlation between some biological traits and one’s ancestral region here, but these don’t overlap all that well with what we think of as an ethnic group.

So, on the face of it, you’re right: the members of some ethnic groups, however you define them, succumb to certain diseases in greater percentages than the members of other ethnic groups in part based on their genetic heritage. It was technically incorrect of the sociologist to say we’re “all the same”. The same is true of those within any ethnic group; and the same is true of all of us as a whole, irrespective of our ethnic group.

But my interpretation of the exchange was that you and your father were talking about different things. Importantly, he wasn’t really interested in sickle cell – he was talking about the health concerns of “ethnic groups” that are not known to be related to any genetic marker, but are rather related to one’s socioeconomic status. Your father was using the sickle cell phenomenon as an example of how “they” (meaning blacks, I’m guessing) are biologically different than others, and thereby dismissing the argument that socioeconomic status has health consequences, in part through stress, which we know to be true.

So, the sociologist oversimplified by saying “we’re all the same”, but she was trying to respond to the greater questions about the nature of human differences that she knew were on the table. A more measured answer might have been that the list of biological differences that can be usefully said to be correlated with “ethnic group” is very small, and contains variation of late evolutionary derivation and of comparatively less importance than what we share. Her assertion is entirely valid – that it is not reasonable to suppose that the poor (and the “ethnic groups” that make up this category) are genetically predisposed to stress-related illness. I think “we’re all the same” covers this idea pretty well in a soundbite.

I’m clearly going beyond the text here, but the conversation you had in no way contradicts the basic premises of eugenics, and is only a very short step away from The Bell Curve’s conclusions about race and intelligence, after all. I know you well enough to know that you find these arguments ridiculous and pernicious as much as I do, but I couldn’t help wishing you had taken the moment to argue against this all-too pervasive perception rather than throw mud at a sociologist who made a well-intentioned and defensible simplification when talking to a layperson audience.

Monday, March 09, 2009 1:07:00 PM  
Blogger Drek said...

Hey Steven,

What I find most interesting about your comment is that you intuit that my father really meant to dismiss the impact of SES on health in favor of genetics. I refer, specifically, to your assertion: "Your father was using the sickle cell phenomenon as an example of how “they” (meaning blacks, I’m guessing) are biologically different than others, and thereby dismissing the argument that socioeconomic status has health consequences, in part through stress, which we know to be true." Really? You think you understand the context of my father's remarks better than I do? Really? Moreover you claim to be able to interpret his statements better than I can despite the fact that you confuse what my father actually said with an example I used in passing to illustrate what I meant. You should read the post again- carefully this time. He never referred to sickle cell, I just linked to it as an illustration of what I meant.

As it happens, I've known my father for a while and am very certain that he was not dismissing the importance of SES for health outcomes. If you were to ask him that question point-blank he would respond that, obviously, SES impacts health. I know that to be the case because we discussed it- I just didn't include that section of the conversation in an admittedly short post. What he was doing was complaining about the arrogance of asserting that there are no differences in health outcomes that correlate with ethnicity while controlling for SES. Your arguments about genetic background are, of course, quite reasonable but largely irrelevant. The issue isn't that blackness somehow causes sickle cell, but that in the U.S. there is a useful correlation between being African-American and an increased risk of sickle cell. It goes without saying that an individual's specific genetic history is more important, but the ethnicity-health link remains a useful heuristic. The same, of course, goes for those of Greek descent despite the fact that what matters is not region of origin but whether or not one carries the recessive trait that can produce sickle cell.

I'm pleased we're in agreement that eugenics are bad, but before you castigate me for failing to take an opportunity to beat that particular horse, perhaps you should consider another interpretation: people are, indeed, very willing to misinterpret what we mean and we should all be very fucking careful when talking to the media so that we don't alienate the very people we're trying to convince.

And, along similar lines, you probably ought to be careful about implying things about someone else's parents.

Monday, March 09, 2009 1:39:00 PM  
Blogger Drek said...

As an additional side note: you say you "...know me well enough...." If by that you mean you know my mild-mannered alter ego, and you want to continue this conversation, then why don't we do it via e-mail? If you just mean you know me via the blog then we can, by all means, continue here.

I realize the above may have been a bit harsher than I intended it to be. That said, I really do think your comments- while well-meant- are misdirected.

Monday, March 09, 2009 2:46:00 PM  

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