Radio Lab

This isn’t perfect, but I’m throwing it out there because I think it’s interesting.

If you’ve never listened to Radio Lab on PRI or NPR or whoever does it, you should listen.  It’s interesting, smart, adult radio about science.  It requires a bit of an attention span to follow the subject through to the end, but usually it will reward you with a slow dawning of knowledge that makes you feel like the time was well spent.

Recently they did a piece on race though, and I was disappointed.  It had some good info, like about how bogus it is that Bidil got approval as a drug specifically for African Americans having heart trouble.  The truth about that drug is that was just a cocktail of already existing drugs that happened to work great together, that the patents for the drugs in the cocktail were about to expire, and that it works really well for for people of any shade.  They did a good job of explaining that, although they never really explained how the drug companies benefited from being able to re-patent already existing drugs.  If you’re interested, Scientific American did a great Article a few months back.

Then Radio Lab did a piece on genetic testing, the kind that will take cells from your cheeks and analyze them for your ancestors’ geographic origin.  They told the story of an Africa American guy, a professor, I think.  He did his own cheek swab and had it analyzed.  The results said he had zero Arican ancestry.  Dude’s family history has had him and his mom and her mom back generations calling themselves black. The testing says they are of Native American, Asian and Eruopean extraction.  After the testing, the show never followed up and answered how it is that a family could have thought, and their nieghbors could have thought something that was completely wrong for generations?  What mad them think they had ancestors in Africa?

They never said, things like: these tests don’t count anything north of the Sahara as African, or that Australian aborigines would show up as Asian (These are 2 possible explanations, I have no idea if they’re the right one for this situation).  The guy and the show sort of shrugged their shoulders and said, “Huh. I guess everything we think about race is total bunk.”  I am very bothered by science shows bending their shows away from controversy in order to accomodate either the left or the right.  I think it takes credibility from them.

Finally they did a segment about the disproportionate numbers of Africans and African-extracted athletes in certain sports.  They did an interview with Malcom Gladwell.  He was once an Olympic caliber runner in Canada, he’s also a great and interesting writer about various social and psychological phenomena.  Great and interesting, but not exactly scientific.  His explanation of why there were so many Jamaican runners among the Canadian sprinters was no more than this: the Jamaican kids had fewer oportunities in their lives, so they wanted victory more.  That little bit of desire was what kept them in front of their non-African-ancestry competition.

It would be easy enough to check this out, right?  Break up competitors economically instead of ethnically.  It should jump out that the most disadvantaged competitors in any group are the most likely to be at the top.  If that were the case I wouldn’t have been totally convinced, but it would at least be an interesting finding.  A finding.  Instead, a science show asked one guy, a writer, what he thought.  He gave his opinion, then backed it up with an anecdotal example.  Come on.

If scientists and science shows aren’t up-front and honest with us about race, it makes it seem like they have something to hide.  By brushing off the legitimate question of why Africans tend to dominate certain sporting events, they lost an oportunity to openly discuss some of the really interesting bio-geographical differences among people. (skeleton, lung capacity, ability to see in bright light, for example).    If you don’t admit that Australian aborigines have, on average, much bigger teeth than other people, or that most people of African descent are lactose intolerant, or that dark-skinned people in northern latitudes need more vitamin D supplements than light-skinned people, if you don’t admit that, it makes it look like science is afraid to look at the truth about what we call race.  That mainstream science is hiding something… That’s bad.

Here’s what I think, for what it’s worth.  People are different.  Some groups of people are different from other groups, although interbreeding has always complicated things.  Many of the differences between groups have to do with geographical variation, culling of the poplulation by diseases, sexual selection and random chance, among other things.  There is nothing to be afraid of if we look at it and ask why, marvel how, or simply admire the array of ways people can be.  It’s cool, and it tells us as much about ourselves as it does about other people.


2 thoughts on “Radio Lab

  1. emily says:

    a thing on race and sports, from william saletan of “human nature”

  2. BERN says:

    I don’t know if the first thing went through. It was somewhat off topic, but a pertinent observation about journalism.
    On topic, I think we started talking seriously about racial differences in the 60s & made a mistake in trying to make everyone all the same. It’s as though we all start 100% equal at conception. This is not true & we are learning that as we go along. Same thing happened to girls & boys. In an uneducated, ignorant (the research had not been done, & probably still hasn’t been done adequately), and bold experiment in equal rights, we made boys & girls the same. When serious research found differences in them in every way, that was hard to swallow. Because of that, there were many missed opportunities to improve everyone in important ways.
    Now that we are talking in baby talk about racial differences, even though it is inadequate, it is a beginning to acceptance of everyone for who they are, what they can do, leaving aside trite stereotypes (which can be useful). Mercifully, I will stop now.

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