Thursday, March 27, 2014

Mailbag: When I'm Not Blogging

Many of you have been very interested in what I do outside of posting things on my blog -- I love it! Make sure to send me more, okay?

First question:

I absolutely love the work you've displayed in your gallery thus far, but you haven't put up anything new recently. Same for your music. Why is that? Is your work on hiatus for some reason?
~ Elliot"

I'm glad you've been keeping up with my work, Elliot! My art/music isn't exactly on hiatus, just that I've been feeling uninspired concerning my piano pieces and I haven't done anything worth posting on my gallery; however, that should change within the next few days or so. I'm working on a digital art piece (maybe two!) that I'll be uploading soon. I'll be sure to update my blog with it as well. I may push that date back, however, because I have one more mailbag to post after this.

Otherwise, thank you so much for your support. It's always nice to have the support of veteran artists. I'll try to compose something on my piano within the month of April, but no promises.

Next question?

"Hi Alexis, I noticed that your description poses you as a student researcher as well as an artist/musician, but aside from your essays, you haven't really mentioned anything about actually doing research at your university. You also seem too young to be a student researcher. Do you have an explanation for any of this?"

It's kind of complicated. When I call myself a student researcher, I'm usually referring to my private research essays. That being said, I actually am an undergraduate researcher, which answers the question of why I'm so young. Undergraduate researchers do less invasive research, and usually it's less exciting. It's mostly about replicating findings that are already well supported.

One example of this would be a few months back. I was supposed to be involved in an experiment with one of my professors involving RNAi of Cycloidea. During the month that I had been offered to participate in this experiment, I was throwing myself into a surge of urgency to try to do a bunch of things to make myself feel more important (yes, I know, that's pathetic). However, a friend of mine has worked with me in testing the fluidity of IQ, and we're both working on a long-term case study of a single individual's intelligence (unnamed).

I'll be doing more research once I obtain my degree. Then I can focus on one field as opposed to two, one of which takes up most of my time. (You feel me, art majors?)

"You talk about a lot of things. What's your favorite topic?"

Straight to the point! Hnn... Personal topics -- the moments where I get to sit down and answer questions like these. It's far less stressful, and I'm sure a lot of you like this form of me better than the raging alcoholic that attacks people who disagree with me.

"I've seen you around on YouTube arguing against people on a variety of topics, but at the same time, I see how stupid many of them can be. Why do you even bother?"

Funny you should mention that, because as I'm typing up this post, I'm concluding an argument with a creationist on YouTube over the debate between Dawkins and Lennox. It can be irritating at first, yes, and many of them can be stupid; however, after a point... isn't it kind of funny to see what people resort to when there's nothing left for them to say?

There are other reasons, though, for why I waste my time in the Den of Deception:

(1) In some cases, I genuinely believe I can change someone's life by offering them information they weren't aware of.
(2) It's good practice for legitimate debates.
(3) It motivates me to dig deep and research topics I like.
(4) It helps promote my blog. (I know, sneaky right?)

So, I guess YouTube arguing isn't all that useless and time wasting.

Last question:

"Dear Alexis,
When you've got no homework to do, nothing to do online, and are just sitting in your room without cause, what do you do?"

I either lie in the grass on my front lawn, looking out at the stars or the horizon (my home has a nice view of the mountain range), or I climb one of the trees in my backyard and play guitar, or just sit there and take a nap. It's more relaxing than you could ever imagine.

That's all for now, ladies and gents. Stay tuned for the last mailbag, and then I'll get back to the typical things I talk about on my blog.

Follow me on social media!


Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Mailbag: Race, Gene Clusters and Wright's FST

About a week ago, the storm over my most recent post on race finally settled down, and I found myself with a bit of peace. Then I received this email:

"It seems that you are censoring comments on both of your posts on race, and so I thought I would send you this email with my thoughts on the discussion. It seems to me that you are playing a semantics game over racial classification. I could talk about gene clusters and morphological characteristics that easily correlate with our traditional idea of race, but to sum it up, I sympathize with this commenter:
'In other words, they evolved differently, but we shouldn't be calling them different races anyway because liberals get butthurt... Great argument against race, no doubt. You can call them populations, I'll call them race - same thing.'
Ignoring the political rhetoric, this commenter has the right idea. By the very nature of what a category is, if we can find that there are several characteristics which correlate with our traditional understanding of race (i.e. Europeans are much more likely to have light skin, light hair, light eyes, certain tooth shape, skull shape, etc.) then even if there are occasional overlaps, those categories are useful and cannot be ignored. This is why it seems, to me, that there is not much scientific reason to deny race. You fully acknowledge that certain people evolved in certain ways to adapt to their environments, such that Europeans became different from East Asians, but you somehow say that these groups cannot be called races? That convinces me you are not scientifically motivated.
Furthermore, in one of your comments on YouTube, you stated that in order to be classified into subspecies, an animal must have an FST of 0.25 - 0.3. This is a common mistake cited by race deniers. There is no set requirement for FST to be classified into subspecies because of the errors in estimating FST, and because it is arbitrary to set any certain requirement. There are plenty of subspecies which have been identified which have an FST of lower than 0.25. There is no set rule, so despite humans having an FST of around 0.15, classifying them into subspecies is just fine.
I hope you will give me an honest response.
- S.T." 

Should I give up, or should I try explaining again? (I'm kidding of course -- I only act this way because I think I know who sent the email, and that's what makes it funny).

First of all, the biggest warning sign that I can be given in these discussions is, right off the bat, being accused of censorship. The accusation isn't entirely untrue, but it isn't perfectly descriptive either. I control the comments that come into my blog because I write on controversial topics from time to time, and thus am inevitably going to receive comments that are NSFW. I don't want that, although I don't go ape over people swearing on my blog either -- I'm rather liberal when it comes to those sorts of things. I do like to keep the discussions in check, though. Anyone who freely comments on my blog can attest to this: if you have something worth saying, you can take the time to type it somewhat cordially so that I can permit it; otherwise, it's not getting published.

Aside from that, however, when a comment doesn't introduce any new arguments (and by this, I mean the answers to their arguments are given in the post or in other comment responses), then it's not worth my readers' time to publish that comment. This is just to avoid repetition.

However, in some cases, something can be repeated so many times in so many different ways. This leads me to believe that the question is in need of an extensive reply, such as the one I am about to provide. So, without further ado, let's get to the substance of S.T.'s email. S.T. states that he sympathizes with this comment from my post on Lewontin's Fallacy and Race:

"In other words, they evolved differently, but we shouldn't be calling them different races anyway because liberals get butthurt... Great argument against race, no doubt. You can call them populations, I'll call them race - same thing."

Had S.T. continued to read on, he would have seen my reply to this commenter:

"Yes, some people 'evolved' differently from others. I say this because humans are still evolving, and it seems we will be for some time to come. Again, this doesn't warrant biological classification beyond the point of subspecies. "Race" and "geographic population" are not the same thing. The significance of studying geographic populations is in observing the population's interaction with its environment."

This is a little vague due to the fact that I had to condense it to have a more comment-appropriate length. It also doesn't directly respond to the argument that if multiple characteristics or genes correlate with an identifiable group, then that group is meaningful in nature, and in this case, these groups can be classified as races; more so, my reply argues against the conflation of population with race. The former, more or less, is what S.T. and the commenter he quoted were arguing. In any case, I probably would've ignored this email had I not received several of the same nature:

If you scientifically believe races do not exist in the human species, please explain how we can look at gene clusters which express for morphological differences or otherwise in populations and accurately classify them into groups?"

"I think it's dishonest to say that typically, a subspecies classification requires a 0.25-0.30 FST, or that this applies to race. Plenty of subspecies have been identified which do not have such a high FST, and in fact have a substantially lower FST than humans. I'd suggest you look at this chart:
To clarify, I don't believe you're dishonest, just that you're misled, by the way. You seem very intelligent."

Thus, I have decided that it is worth responding to in whole. This will be a two-part response: (1) don't gene clusters imply that we can classify race; and (2) since other subspecies have been classified with a lower FST than 0.25, doesn't that mean it works just fine with humans?

The first part is a little ignorant. If I were to compare the elk population in Alberta to the elk population in Ontario and conducted an Analysis of Molecular Variance (AMOVA) and found their FST to be 0.01, that means that only 1% of the variation which exists can be explained by between-population differences. Now, within this 1%, there may be a cluster of a few genes which almost always correlate to the elk population we took our sample from. Let's say it's a set of 25 genes. Around 95% of the time, allele A of these genes is exclusive to the Albertan Elk, and allele B is exclusive to the Ontarian Elk. The logic of what is being suggested is that because this difference exists, even though there is only a 1% difference between these two populations, we can classify them into subspecies, or race, or deme, or whatever classification below the level of species you prefer.

Since elk in Washington tend to be fatter, they're obviously a new subspecies.
So, even if the FST of humans were 0.003, if that 0.3% of variation contains alleles which almost always correlate with our traditional understanding of race, then those races are meaningful classifications in the context we're discussing. By this logic, I could divide Americans from the north and Americans from the south into different races; or, as I have suggested previously, I could identify a few dozen different races in India. The issue is not whether or not there are differences. The issue is whether or not the large majority of these differences can be best explained by our traditional racial classifications. Scientists have largely found that it is not so.

The second part is a bit trickier. There are probably subspecies that have been identified which have an FST of lower than 0.25. The general rule, as I've been taught, is that 25% between-population differentiation warrants separate classification. There are always going to be exceptions to these rules, because science itself needs to be somewhat flexible in order to account for things we don't fully understand. In these cases, we would look at the Albertan Elk and Ontarian Elk and see if there are other differences. Are they geographically separated, or do they regularly move between the borders of Alberta and Ontario? Do they have distinct ecology -- does one only eat a certain type of plant, or display a different social structure?

The different "races" of humans are not so distinct. We can all adapt to living in a different society than where we grew up in without too much difficulty. We are all capable of eating the same foods, for the most part (I'm aware that, for example, lactose intolerance occurs at higher rates in some populations). We show little genetic distinction from one another (more recent estimates suggest that our differences are in the range of 3% to 7% as opposed to the 15% I usually cite). Based on our current understanding of human variation, race is not the best classification we can use.

More over, the chart that was cited in the third email I received was an interesting one. It has been cited before on my blog -- specifically, it was cited by the person that the first emailer referred to. I know which website it came from, but specifically I don't know who created it. I guess it's safe to assume that the author of that website probably made it, but I wonder if it came from a journal article instead. Either way, there are many things that I find funny/interesting about the chart, and I think I'll be discussing those things in a separate post in the near future. For now, my general explanations are what I have to offer.

What other emails have I received regarding the debate over race?

In your review of Stephen Jay Gould's 'The Book of Life,' you suggested that he was some kind of phenomenal scientist that was revolutionary to his field. This is where you're wrong, and I'm guessing this is where you received much of your education on human racial differences. Libertarian Realist did a good video on this in response to c0nc0rdance, who I see you're subscribed to on Youtube. Funny, huh?
 Stephen Jay Gould was charged with intellectual dishonesty for his book 'The Mismeasure of Man' due to his anti-racism, much like you. He accused Samuel Morton of intellectual dishonesty and bias in his calculation of cranial capacities; however, when Lewis et al. remeasured the sample from the original study, they found that Morton was completely accurate, and if anyone was biased, it was Gould.
You can find Janet Monge's interview on the matter here:"

Recently, HannibaltheVictor13 on YouTube made a video response to this, and if you don't like how I say things, maybe you'll like him. You can find his video here.

Otherwise, I'll continue to respond.

Stephen Jay Gould's original thought of Morton was, yes, that Morton was a racist and that he may have shown his bias in his calculations. The direct criticism, however, was that Morton had not controlled for sex or stature of the skeletons that he observed, and that he omitted certain skulls to fit his preconceptions of racial categories, and all of this skewed the results. In their study, Lewis et al. made the same mistake Morton did and failed to control for sex or for stature. In fact, Lewis et al. failed to remeasure the entire collection -- they remeasured about half of it.

S.J.G. -- a man who is a great evolutionary biologist.
At the same time, it's funny that this email should mention and refer to Janet Monge. She was one of the researchers in the Lewis et al. study, and she is also the curator of the Physical Anthropology Section of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology; this is where the skull collection is held and was being held at the time of the study. The skull collection at the University of Pennsylvania is impressive, and the university wanted to publicly promote this collection in pride. When Stephen Jay Gould criticized the measurements of the skulls in the collection, and Janet Monge responded by participating in a study to respond to Gould's criticisms, funded by the University of Pennsylvania, she immediately triggered a conflict of interest. In the study, the authors declared no competing interests. Thus, as it stands, Gould's original criticisms were intellectually sound, and the criticisms of the Lewis et al. study remain brushed under the carpet.

But either way, the flaw with this criticism of Stephen Jay Gould (one which Libertarian Realist took part in) is that it's fallacious. Stephen Jay Gould, even if he had incorrectly criticized Morton, was a great scientist, and his work was phenomenal. One fault in his addressing of human variation, specifically race, would not destroy all of the other contributions he's made to science.

This concludes this mailbag post. The next one will be about more personal questions I've received regarding my life, not my work.

Thank you all for reading.

Follow me on social media!


Tuesday, March 11, 2014

BanBossy... and Everything Else

So a recent phenomenon has risen from the depths of the feminist movement, now riding the title "BanBossy." I'm always skeptical of media hyped attempts to raise awareness of different activist movements, but this really takes the cake. BanBossy is the most ridiculous of any censorship attempt I've given witness to since I was born.

First, let me be clear. I support equal rights and representation for all people. This does not mean I think everyone is inherently equal, but that I think that a program of "equality of opportunity" should be promoted in any case where it is applicable, within reason. That can be ambiguous, but clarifying what I mean isn't important to what I'm talking about here. Let's examine what's become of the BanBossy phenomenon.

The BanBossy movement is being sponsored by the Girl Scouts Organization and by COO Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook. This being said, one can easily imagine that the movement will gain much recognition. This in itself is dangerous, because such a viral, direct movement can completely jump the hurdles of rationality or critical thinking. This is upheld when I see that, on the BanBossy website, there are many claims, but no peer-reviewed, scientific evidence to back up the claims and statistics. This immediately hits me as being something that is untrustworthy and nothing more than activist hype.

*Note, after this post was made, a friend of mine alerted me to the fact that one of the most pushed stats -- that up to a third of girls are afraid to become leaders out of fear of being seen as bossy, or something like that --  actually does have a source. It's from a 2008 survey... by the Girl Scouts. Incredible.*

Beyond that, it actually doesn't take much to realize that this whole movement is very ineffective in terms of practicality, although it could definitely change some individual minds. With that in mind, what is the ultimate goal of BanBossy?

I found this a difficult question to be a difficult question to answer. The BanBossy website, which I refuse to link to, only gives links to Facebook and Twitter, saying how you can promise to "BanBossy." What does this practically do, however? Is the goal to simply change minds -- to raise awareness? Are there any intentions for policy implementations? I find it ridiculous to imagine that as punishment for calling a girl "bossy," Billy is just going to lose his pretzels and juice time after school. Or perhaps we could put a "misogynist" label on his permanent record. That'd be effective, right?

Another, more trivial question is: what if somebody really is bossy? Where do we draw the line before we decide that somebody is being unreasonable in calling a person bossy? More importantly, who decides where that line is drawn? I feel that with the intense support of celebrities and international organizations, the role of this assignment is being taken away from the educator, and more to the uneducated masses who will ride the wave of anything that sounds supportive and kind-hearted.

Or perhaps, "BIG SISTER"
Let me give an example. I were to assert that BanBossy is, well, bossy, am I proving their point, or am I raising a legitimate complaint? You can't really tell, because it largely depends on what side of the argument you're on. If such a debate relies purely on values, and not on any extensive, empirically verifiable data, then there's not much of a point in having the argument, is there?

Now I can go on and on asking these questions to raise criticism about this movement, but I think the most important issue to address here is censorship. Is it the answer? Should we not, instead, encourage women to feel proud of themselves as a counter to being accused of being bossy? In fact, the direct impact of the word might suggest that the individual is simply asserting herself as a boss, not a follower. What would Beyoncé have to argue with that?

The problem with attempting to censor specific words in our language is the fact that language is very liquid. It can't be controlled because every day, new words and new phrases are being conceived of to generate the same impact or to suggest the same ideas and concepts. That's what the beauty of language is. The only solution that was ever suggested was an Orwellian one -- that we should create a dictionary of approved words by the government, and if anyone were to deviate from those specific words, they could be punished for Thought Crime. This dictionary could be updated whenever needed to delete any word that could somehow suggest an idea or concept that would be threatening to the government or the establishment thereof.

What kind of society are we leading ourselves towards? Most importantly, what kind of fools are we to try to suggest to ourselves that something so fluid like language can be controlled to have a socially positive outcome? Now, I understand that the supporters of this movement have suggested that their aim is not to simply ban a word, but to ban the thoughts that discourage women from being leaders. This being said, not only is this aim incredibly vague and impossible to grasp, but it further proves my point. This is not an issue of banning a word; this is an issue of suggesting to people that unrealistically attempting to ban a word or thought is the best resolution to this problem.

Against my better judgments, however, I am going to allow all comments through for this particular post (although it'll still say it requires approval), which is a change from my others. The reason is to prove a point, but not the point that people will think. I want my potential readers and seldom commenters to feel the freedom of uncensored speech and criticism. I don't care if you call me a bitch, an idiot, or even the scare word of the week, "bossy." I have far outgrown the limitations of immature rebuttals to simple detraction. That being said, I want to see what complaints can be brought to the table against my comments here, both legitimate and illegitimate.

So as always, thank you for reading, and I look forward to any feedback. Oh, but don't forget:


Follow me on social media!


Saturday, March 8, 2014

Toronto ComiCon 2014

Had a great time at Toronto ComiCon today; everyone was incredibly nice, and it was overall just a fun experience. Although it wasn't the best ComiCon I've been to, it was definitely worth while. People dressed as Dr. Who, Batman and Thor gallivanted around Toronto throughout the day, and even mayoral candidate David Soknacki came and took a photo with Zombie Camp.

Guests included Jon Heder, Sean Astin, Billy Boyd, Denise Crosby, Matthew Wood- ah screw it, there were plenty of people worth mentioning there, so I'll just link to the list of guests. Specifically, people would be excited to know the stars of Orphan Black were there. It's a shame that photo ops and autographs were so expensive.

I put together an album of some of the best costumes + the picture of Soknacki. Check it out here.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Google Scholars and Statisticians or "Why I've Stopped Giving a Shit"

Over the past 2 years, I've spent a great deal of time on the internet; not because I don't have a life (although that much is true), but because I was internally learning and documenting something.

At the time of my arrival for a long-term stay on the internet, I had no idea what I was going to find. There are vast communities of people who hold views that I saw (and for the most part, still see) as being absolutely ridiculous. They went against everything I had ever been taught, and it challenged me to look deeper into the subjects I had already been introduced to.

For many of these topics, knowledge of statistics is imperative, because no matter what field you go into, you can be sure that you'll need to allude to some type of statistic to make your case; without it, you haven't much of a basis for new claims. However, as the old saying goes, there are lies, damn lies, and then there are statistics. Many people use statistics falsely or manipulatively -- it's difficult to understand because a lot of times, statistics can just be molded to fit your preconceptions; in these cases, you'll find that more often than not, there are counter-statistics that show the opposite of what the last data set suggested. There are also times where you find statistics supporting your claims, but fail to understand the nature of those statistics. There are also those situations where people blindly regurgitate studies and "statistics" to prove their case, but those sources are flawed for one reason or another.

At the same time, there are "Google Scholars" who base their information off of what they find on the internet, and not from what they've been introduced to through formal education. These people, as I've found, are almost always mistaken, because in simply looking things up in an attempt to prove something (or even simply learn), you'll often skip a few steps in the process, as there is no formal organization to what you're investigating most of the time. For example, in my post on "Lewontin's Fallacy" and Race (note how I'm not using links, because it adds to my point), somebody tried telling me that there is less variation between dogs, wolves and coyotes than there is between human races. They based this off of citing a book, which I have now read and reviewed, on the evolution of dogs, which alluded to mt-DNA. If the person knew what mt-DNA was before citing it as evidence, and understood how those species have evolved, they wouldn't have cited the book as evidence.

So what is the relevance of all of this?

I had two posts planned in the upcoming weeks: one on explaining falling fertility rates in developed countries, and one explaining racial disparities in violent crime. Both were inspired by the "race realist" crowd and the latter was specifically inspired by Jared Taylor and American Renaissance. What were the cases being made in my posts?

In my post on falling fertility rates, I planned on providing explanations which had substantial evidence, and dismissing claims that had been otherwise disproved (such as feminism, contraception and homosexuality all being explanations for falling TFR. Of course, the former doesn't explain falling TFR in Japan, the second has been shown to have minimal effect, and the latter shows no significant trend). In my post on race and crime, I planned on providing explanations for why there is a high correlate (and yes, there is a correlate). These explanations include poverty, socioeconomic status, population density, and so on. Other claims would assert that black people are just more likely to commit crime for the simple fact that they're black. This, of course, ignores decades of research in criminology, and ignores dozens of other hypotheses which have been shown to have a direct correlation, unlike race.

For the first post, it's very easy to find information. For the second, things can become tricky or misleading. Last night, I sat beside a friend of mine explaining the nature of the correlates, and we noticed that there really is a higher rate of crime committed by blacks than whites. I spent some time trying to figure out how the nature of the statistics may be skewing the results, such as the example of how minority groups are naturally skewed towards committing a higher rate of interracial crime by the simple fact that they're a statistical minority. It took me a while, but then the answer hit me like a brick in the face, and I felt so ashamed of myself for forgetting everything I had ever been taught in criminology.

Poverty, no shit Sherlock (regression analysis shows that poverty can explain at least half of the racial variance in crime).

I immediately deleted both of my posts and came to write this one.

In hearing all of these new hypotheses on the internet, I had turned away from the research that had already been done on the topics. For many of the subjects, it doesn't take much to disprove the claims I had heard: really, Wikipedia has done a good job of that on its own.

Yet I've spent so much time stressing over people who take idiotic stances such as denying anthropogenic climate change, criticizing Canadian health care, accusing feminists/homosexuals as being responsible for falling fertility rates, or claiming that blacks are inherently prone to criminal behavior (or are naturally less intelligent than whites). Many of these claims can be dismissed with about as much effort as it takes to find evidence for them, and many of these topics have largely been addressed and are now ignored by relevant experts.

The point of studying and analyzing these topics, for me, was to show people answers to questions that may not be intuitively obvious; however, for a majority of the subjects I've addressed, if someone wants the answer, they can easily find it.

Most internet debates, then, are for people who have already come to their own conclusions and don't care to challenge them; they have an agenda now.

Thus ends my case study of internet debating/conflict -- in such nonconstructive arguments, my time is wasted, and I am not coming to any new or revolutionary conclusions. Most of the time, I'm just reaffirming what has already been known for years and is now taught extensively in relevant institutions and fields of study. This being said, from now on, I'm going to seriously reconsider what I discuss on my blog, and when I come up with an idea, I'm going to ask myself: "has this already been said a thousand times before?"

Because if a thousand voices all confirming the same thing still haven't convinced the (m)asses, then my voice probably won't change it either.

Thank you for reading.

Follow me on social media!


Saturday, March 1, 2014

Forensic Anthropology and Race

Looks like I'm temporarily going back to the topic of human races again. This is probably going to cause me to categorize my posts from now on, but that will come later, if at all.

This is stemming from my post on "Lewontin's Fallacy" and the topic of race as a biologically valid category for humans (or, rather, why it is not). Within the last week, I continued to receive a small number of comments, many of them branching from an ad nauseam argument regarding forensic anthropologists' ability to identify the race of an individual by either examining certain genetic clusters that correlate with self-identified race, or by examining bone fragments or other anthropometric features. I've disabled comments now, because I had already stated that I wouldn't further entertain the discussion, but I feel that a further explanation is needed to kill this line of reasoning.

To begin, the reason a forensic anthropologist can identify "race" with a high level of confidence can be narrowed down to two things: (1) a preconception of what "race" is, and (2) an informative prior.

The first should seem fairly self-explanatory, but it needs context. In order to meaningfully identify "race," a forensic anthropologist needs to be aware of the circumstances they're working under. Definitions of different races vary from society to society, thus if a forensic anthropologist were to say "this is the body of a black male" in America, it would be different than if he had said the same thing in South Africa.

This is fairly well discussed in the article "Understanding Race and Human Variation: Why Forensic Anthropologists are Good at Identifying Race" by Ousley, Jantz and Freid in 2009. The authors do concede that there are rather unambiguous morphological differences between American blacks and American whites; however, they explain why this can be taken out of context:

Forensics: Useful for practical reasons.
"Part of the reason for the disagreement between forensic and biological anthropologists has been in their different approaches and goals. Forensic anthropologists answer practical questions of age, sex, and race to construct the biological profile and narrow down possible identifications. In examining American blacks and whites, forensic anthropologists would naturally think in terms of two biological races because of the concordance between social and morphological race. Identifying social race, available in missing persons reports, would be the stopping point. Biological anthropologists would explore within-group variation further. These findings illustrate the essential difference between a forensic analysis and a biological analysis: forensic analysis produces practical information useful for forensic identification, while a biological analysis provides insight about relationships among arbitrarily defined populations, which may be defined by social races, breeding populations, language, nationality, time periods, and other criteria." (pp. 73)

These comments serve to echo and confirm the findings of Sauer in 1992 in a paper entitled "Forensic Anthropology and the Concept of Race: If Races Don't Exist, Why are Forensic Anthropologists so Good at Identifying Them?" Humorously, I would like to note that the only mentioning you'll find of this study on Metapedia (or any study featured in the special edition of the American Journal of Physical Anthropology Race Reconciled) is that the name of this study shows how forensic identification has "bewildered race deniers." How selectively vague and uninformative, right? But enough of mocking "race realists" (lest I break my rule).

So, this is what it means to have a preconception of what race is. It means that a forensic anthropologist can both disagree with the biological concept of race, but also work very well within the confines of his/her work to identify someone's social race, and remain completely consistent. But, there remains a question to answer: if the biological concept of race is inaccurate, how can a forensic anthropologist find such high concordance rates between self-identified race and morphological race? Surely that means the traditional racial categories we use are useful, right?

They are meaningful, for identification purposes, and that only works within a given society. This goes into what I alluded to earlier: an informative prior. This one is a bit less obvious to work with, so I'll defer to a study also featured in Race Reconciled which explains this function of forensic anthropology: a 2009 study by Konigsberg et al. entitled "Estimation and Evidence in Forensic Anthropology: Sex and Race." Not only was this study an easy read, but it comprehensively explains what so many people don't understand.

This study discusses the identification of one "Mr. Johnson" from Iowa. Using craniometric features and matching them to the samples in FORDISC 2.0 and Howells' sample using linear and quadratic discriminant function analysis, forensic anthropologists were able to identify the gender and race of Mr. Johnson rather unambiguously. The posterior probability of the body being male ranged from 0.996 to 0.999 -- noting this, I would like to make it clear that it is not easier to identify race than it is to identify gender, unlike what some might suggest. This part was rather uncomplicated by comparison, however, when we get into the identification of race, my talk of an informative prior becomes relevant.

By matching to the sample data, the typicality of Mr. Johnson relative to the Easter Islander sample was 0.8415, indicating a high probability that Mr. Johnson could be correctly identified, if he were alive, as an Easter Islander. This is, however, using a uniform prior, i.e. no informative information about the demographics of the area Mr. Johnson was found in. Given that Mr. Johnson was found in eastern Iowa, the probability of him being an Easter Islander significantly decreases -- that's just a matter of knowing the demographics of Iowa. To continue, what does this do to the typicality of Mr. Johnson's craniometric features?

By using the 2000 US census for Iowa as an informative prior, the highest posterior probability for Mr. Johnson is for "American white" at 0.6976, whereas the probability of him being an Easter Islander is now at 0.0449. This is an incredibly significant change considering the posterior probability we had using the uninformative prior. How do these probabilities change depending on the prior we use?

Mr. Johnson's race somewhat 'transforms' from state to state.
By using the 2000 US census data for Hawaii, the posterior probability for Mr. Johnson being an Easter Islander is now 0.9068, while the probability for being an American white is 0.0188. Using data for Gary, Indiana, the probability of Mr. Johnson being American white is 0.2728, but the posterior probability of him being American black is the highest at 0.5342. To summarize, the authors state in the discussion:

"From an evidentiary standpoint, sex of the individual is only of much use if the sex ratio is very biased for the population at large and the identification is for an individual of the lesser represented sex. Regarding the use of race in estimation and evidentiary problems, this, like many problems in forensic anthropology is very context specific. We have shown that prior information can be very important both in estimation and evidentiary problems. But in estimation problems, we are ultimately faced with posterior probabilities which we must decide how how to implement." (pp. 84)

Let me stress the significance of those words. Using race in forensic anthropology is largely reliant on probabilities, and even then, it requires context.

This is why I get somewhat tired and irritated when, while debating about race, a sentence starts with "a forensic anthropologist can-" or even mentions forensic anthropology at all. Within the field of anthropology, there exists "social race" and "biological race." Forensic anthropologists more often than not are using morphological features to identify social race, that is, the race the individual would've been identified as had they been alive. This is why informative priors can change the probability estimates -- because an individual's social race is quite fluid; therefore, it does not justify race as a biological concept.

Thank you for reading.

Follow me on social media!


References: Konigsberg, L., Algee-Hewitt, B., & Steadman, D. (2009). Estimation and evidence in forensic anthropology: Sex and race. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 139 (1), 77-90 DOI: 10.1002/ajpa.20934

Ousley, S., Jantz, R., & Freid, D. (2009). Understanding race and human variation: Why forensic anthropologists are good at identifying race. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 139 (1), 68-76 DOI: 10.1002/ajpa.21006  

Sauer, N. (1992). Forensic anthropology and the concept of race: If races don't exist, why are forensic anthropologists so good at identifying them? Social Science & Medicine, 34 (2), 107-111 DOI: 10.1016/0277-9536(92)90086-6