How science journalism “adjusts” findings to fit political agenda

2012/11/04 § Leave a comment

Open letter to Ms. Bojs:

I appreciate your article mentioned above since this has been my field of research and expertise. I continue to follow the current development in genetics very closely. Thank you for a well written article.

However, I respectfully like to raise one major point of objection. You claim that “there are no human races”. I understand Sweden and swedish politics well enough to know that this is a common view amongst social scientists and it is the predominant political view in Sweden. However, there are aspects of the general concept that are useful and I would maintain, are needed in life science. And this is also emphasized in the study by McVean.

On the other hand, nowehere can I find any mention of the impact on the concept of race the way you describe it in your article in McVean’s report? It appears implied in the article on DN but I think not rightfully so. To the contrary. As you mention in your article “Sådana sällsynta variationer är i hög grad knutna till särskilda platser på jorden,  visar den nya studien.” (Translation: Such rare [genetic] variations are connected to certain places in the world to a high degree).

It is exactly this variation that we mean, when we talk about the definition of race. Genetic variation that is clustered in distinct patterns around the globe.

It is, as the authors of the 1000 genomes project point out, of medical relevance too. This would not be relevant as a consequence or a finding of the 1000 genomes project if the concept of race was flawed. Genes do cluster in distinct geographic patterns due to evolutionary laws. The outcome is what we call race in biology. We could use another term, but I think we should not only do so because of a political agenda. I reject the idea to let political ideology dictate the language of science.

The definition of race is an expansion on the concept of the (family) group that becomes geographically separated and takes well established natural laws into account, such as the hardy-weinberg principle of genetic drift. It hence is a valid concept and an important one too.

I understand the political sensitivity connected to the issue of race. However, I personally doubt that it is a good idea to make statements about scientific topics driven by a political agenda.

Certainly the term race is- or rather has been- poorly defined for quite some time. However such findings as the ones described in your article help improve the definition. However, in medical treatment of, for instance, diabetes type II patience it is of crucial importance to take race in to account. Recent research has revealed many areas of major differences of individuals with different phenotypes that go far beyond the skin deep differences. Especially the newest revelation, e.g. that the so called junk DNA contains the blueprint for the regulation of complex expression patterns, calls for caution. Apparently minute differences carry major medical relevance- which is in the same vein as the finding of McVean et al.

The dogma, that has long been held, that the differences in the human sequences between different populations are too small to make a real difference in terms of phenotype have long been revised by researchers that dissect the complex regulation of genetic expression. It has become evident that minute differences between sequence patterns can have major implications for the overall expression patter.

This is before even going into the details about modifications of the DNA due to epigenetic regulation, that vary heavily within geographically separated (race) groups.

My point simply is that the concept of race- although it may need some minor revision and an adjusted modern definition- is not merely useful as a category when studying human genetics. Medically speaking it is a crucial aspect to be taken into account if one wants to develop the optimal treatment for various racial groups of people.

Why do I care? I am a proponent of freedom, also freedom from oppression of the sciences due to political agendas. We all know too well from examples such as the Nazi regime what happens when we let political agenda dictate what the findings of science should look like.

Especially natural science must be free from ideology. Natural sciences must explain how the world functions in its inner workings, it must not explain it in a watered down narrative for people with certain ideological sensitivities to being able to accept it. The consequences of the findings are not to be anticipated by science and manipulated in an attempt to prevent potentially negative consequences.

The consequences of each finding are a challenge to society, but one that society has to tackle, not science or individual scientist.

I strongly believe, neither should journalists try to shelter the public from findings or twist “words” in order to make the current science be pleasant to the current political ideology. This is what I found disappointing about your article because to me it looks like that is what you- maybe not intentionally- were doing.

This is not to say that in social sciences you are free to deal with this term “race” or the concept or its implications as you please. As a matter of fact, I believe it should be a challenge accepted by social sciences to deal, explain and come to terms with the findings of natural sciences, that challenge conventional wisdom of social sciences. Unfortunately I do not see social sciences accept that challenge on a grant scale. Rather they reject findings or try to narrate them in a different way to “make them fit” their preconceived point of view.

Certainly racism must have no basis in modern society in any form or shape under any circumstances ever. Of course people must not in any conceivable way be discriminated against on the basis of their biological make-up.

This is a challenge still to most societies, I admit. However, this is not to be solved by denying the existence of terms that are useful to biology. I fear that by merely denying differences we do not cause less discrimination but more in the end. In my opinion, we must learn to live and embrace differences, even celebrate them! not deny them.

Kind regards.

For more background please check:

1000 Genomes project

1000 genomes the study on SPON in German

DN article on the subject

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