Overcoming the Luddites

One of the most laborious and exasperating chores for a progressive is in surmounting the wall of anti-science ignorance that buttresses the entire right-wing worldview. Some believe in a magical sky wizard–even taking his spellbook as literally as they do certain chartering government documents. No you Christian inquisitors, the Bible is a living document; and one with more folds and crannies than Madonna’s desiccated groin. Some far fars even believe that forces of supply and demand apply equally to the labor market, while others deny the transformative effects of crossing the Rio Grande. In sum, the Right is a dense farrago of superstitions.

Though probably none of these are so baleful as the resolute Luddism in the areas of race, sex, and weather. It is in these fields where science (or at least our opinion of what it should be) has advanced farthest beyond the hoary paradigms of conservative bigotry.

We now understand that whether one is male or female is strictly a conscious choice. In contrast, whether one chooses to be anally impaled by a same sex (choiced) partner is biologically innate.

Similarly, we now know that differences between sexes are not real and neither is race. But climate change is indisputable. The lesson being simple: the only way to be certain something doesn’t exist is to perceive it with your own senses.

And while we progressives are the rational reality-based champions of scientific advancement…well let’s not get carried away.

Will ‘DNA Phenotyping’ Lead to Racial Profiling by Police?

Oh my goodness. What has science gotten into now?

An unknown serial killer wreaking havoc in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in the summer of 2002 led local police and the FBI to employ a novel and controversial approach.

They sent a sample of DNA that had been found at the scene of one of the crimes to a be analyzed using a new test designed by a molecular biologist. Tony Frudakis promised that, with his “DNAWitness” test, he could identify the suspect’s race within a small margin of error. Following a witness description, the cops had previously been searching for a white male. But Frudakis identified the suspect as being black. Because of those results, the investigation switched course, and eventually produced the killer.

Even though the science led to an arrest, one of the prosecutors in Baton Rouge, Tony Clayton, expressed his wariness about its emphasis on race and ethnicity; he said he didn’t trust anything that implies all people don’t “bleed the same blood.”

Exactly. I couldn’t have phrased the issue more concisely. I suppose it’s mildly gratifying to have apprehended a serial killer before he carved the liver out of another loved one, but to do it in a manner that suggests some kind of sanguinary disparities is really quite uncouth. I mean we all have red blood, just like trout. Everything that bleeds is the same. Are you implying the existence of some mystical markers that could distinguish one being from another? Something like “DNA” detectable in blood? May as well dance around the totem pole, Tonto.

Clayton told a Wired reporter in 2007: “If I could push a button and make this technology disappear, I would.” The Wired piece concluded that, despite the technology’s accuracy, “police won’t touch it” for just that reason, and that Frudakis’ company would likely go out of business. (It did.)

We are very fortunate that extremist outfit got scuttled. Can you imagine police openly deploying such a racist tool? Science ethicists must stringently vet budding technologies for potentially malign applications. In this instance, we are obliged to weigh free range serial killers against double helix hate. I think we can all agree on which is the greater evil. So I’ll scientifically exhale with relief that future black murderers will remain unmolested and conclude this post as a cautionary tale. But what’s it say below?

In the years since, law enforcement seems to have grown less squeamish.

Oh no.

An extensive New York Times article this week details all the different companies—some with peer-reviewed methods, some without—that are currently cashing in on a process now known as “forensic DNA phenotyping,” the approximate identification of a suspect’s ancestry, eye color, and hair color.

Wait. If law enforcement knew a suspect’s ancestry, eye, and hair color then it might conceivably abandon the preferred and far less offensive description of: Teen in a red shirt.

Like Clayton, the Louisiana prosecutor, a Stanford anthropologist is quoted in Pollack’s article worrying that this methodology will lead to racial profiling.

Like an affirmative action program, you mean?

They are not alone in having this concern. In a chapter she wrote in the book What’s the Use of Race? Modern Governance and the Biology of Difference, bioethicist Pamela Sankar expressed concern about the simultaneous vagueness and (perceived) unassailability of DNA results. “It seems possible that instead of making suspect searches more exact, the vagueness of FDP descriptions might make them more vulnerable to stereotyping,” Sankar wrote. “Of course, the same might be said of most descriptions the police are handed. Other descriptions, however, are not based on genetics.”

Right. If tests reveal the certainty of a black perpetrator, it would be unseemly to allow the investigation to succumb to stereotypes. More problematic still are when these are premised on genetics that precisely reveal a racial classification which could not possibly exist. Some scientists seem to have lost focus on what is and is not apropriate science.

The authors, who study the intersection of technology and law, also wrote of “the risk of establishing a link in people’s minds between certain minorities and crime [as] greater, i.e. ‘it’s in their DNA.’” As to the latter problem, the authors proposed that law enforcement present the results of the DNA tests (as in, “the suspect is probably light-skinned”) to the public without necessarily including the source of the information (“…which we know because we tested DNA left at the crime scene”).

Let’s be certain to never discuss the obvious links between race and crime. Doing so could result in several naive white girls not experiencing rape and murder each year. And that’s just a bridge too far. So better not to reveal the source of our information on criminals.

Here’s a suggested exchange:

The suspect is probably darker than a burned out El Camino.

How do you know that chief?

Let’s just say we noted a high volume of oppression residue at the crime scene.

It’s ultimately up to law enforcement officers to use any tool at hand responsibly, and not as an excuse for racial profiling. Certainly, information about a perpetrator’s race or ethnicity that was provided by witnesses or victims can also be misused. In 2013, the victim of a sexual assault in Ontario told police that her attacker had dark skin; armed with that information, the Ontario Provincial Police responded by subjecting 100 migrant workers to a DNA “testing sweep” to see if any of them were a match, according to a damning article in the Toronto Star.

Knowing an assailant’s race is no excuse for racial profiling. Though we can all empathize with the horror visited upon those 100 dark skinned migrant workers. I’m guessing that after composing themselves from the torment of a mouth swab, they immediately departed Canada without even wrapping their carpet bag. Such outrages simply don’t occur in Somalia.

Ricardo Federico, an attorney interviewed for the story, asked, “How far do we want the dragnet to go? Do we want the science police knocking on everybody’s door?”

No, we only want the science police knocking on the doors of teens in red shirts.


8 thoughts on “Overcoming the Luddites

    • You have to almost admire such a pristine lack of self awareness. (As her index finger furiously popped imaginary bubbles) You have impugned my SCIENCE-BASED rejection of science!

  1. You hear about police departments discontinuing the practice of identifying subjects by race in their crime bulletins because it encourages stereotyping (the act of identification, of course, not the fact that people of a certain skin color keep robbing and murdering at alarming rates). This is the next level. Will the wonders never cease?

    • My local community newspaper recently dared to note the color of the suspects in a local car-jacking incident and were rebuked by several letters to the editor from Good White People saying that providing them this information was racist, and could potentially give some Bad White People validation of their wrongthink. They are so committed to their narrative that they will publicly insist on being lied to, confident that advocating for ignorance will be met with reverent applause. This is the world we live in.

      • It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.

        Obviously Darwin’s axiom doesn’t extrapolate well. Here’s mine:

        It is not the race most adaptable to change that survives, but the one least susceptible to delusion.

  2. Pingback: This Week in Reaction (2015/03/06) | The Reactivity Place

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s