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Member since May 2011 · 2473 posts · Location: Brisbane
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Subject: Science succeeds but people fail
An American scientist has developed a reliable technology for determining a person's race using only a sample of their DNA.  Give him a chunk of skin and he'll tell you if someone is black, white or Afro-Caribbean.  The test analyzes 176 points on the DNA genome and has only 'a tiny margin of error'.

American cops and prosecutors are reluctant to use it, 'cause it sounds racist.  Says one prosecutor: "If I could push a button and make this technology disappear, I would."

What the fuck is wrong with these people?  They're comparing this technology to racial profiling, as if hard evidence identifying the race of someone who has actually committed a crime is the same as pulling over black people in nice cars just in case.

The insanity of it enrages me.

From wired.com
BLEARGH
This post was edited on 2008-01-03, 09:19 by NFG.
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Member since Oct 2007 · 316 posts
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I don't think people in the legal profession object to the technology per se. What they're afraid of is that this technology might be misused by people with an agenda against a racial group. Good scientists examine all the data and form a conclusion. Poor scientists decide on a conclusion and the gather only the evidence to support it. I can absolutely see a situation where a small amount of DNA at a crime is tagged as 'black' and then used to eliminate all the white suspects from consideration, even though there may be accomplices or other mitigating factors. That's to say nothing of the complicated issues of miscegenation, and the completely arbitrary factors of identifying racial differences in one species of primate.
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Member since May 2011 · 2473 posts · Location: Brisbane
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I don't understand the fear.  They're upset about how the future might turn out, so they're avoiding solid, reliable and proven technology now?  People with such small minds shouldn't be allowed to keep their jobs.

The example you gave is spurious, and reminds me of the government trying to enforce site blacklists at the ISP level instead of going after the illegal sites themselves.  It's a total failure on every level: taking the easy way out instead of facing the facts and working with them. 

I've no time for idealists who eschew the truth in favour of bullshit social agendas.  Science gives us inviolable truths, and it does no one any favours to ignore them.

(to be clear, my rage is directed at them, not you)
BLEARGH
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Member since Oct 2007 · 316 posts
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Yes, science is also in the business of delivering inviolable truth. But in this case, what's being measured by science is wholly arbitrary. A person with seven great-grandparents from France and one great-grandparent from Africa will still be considered black in most western societies. Is the output from this new genetic test designed to account for this level of granularity, or will it mathematically conclude that this person is white? Or worse, does it show that the person in question is has twelve percent African ancestry and allow the tester the make the value judgment?

The fallacy here is in the interpretation of the result, not in the science. But it's hard to hold up a chart of base pairs and mitochondrial mutations and get the general public excited about it. As a society, we have not developed the level of egalitarian color-blindness that's morally necessary to make this test valuable and useful to us. I don't see that the information produced by this test, rigorously impartial though it may be, can be any more useful to us than the measurements that went into phrenology.
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Member since May 2011 · 2473 posts · Location: Brisbane
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Phrenology?  That's a preposterous comparison.  Detailing someone's race is as accurate as detailing someone's eye colour, where phrenology is as scientific as astrology.

Reading up on the DNAWitness page, they say that the test will narrow down the subject to four major groups:  European, East Asian, Native American and Sub-Saharan African.  Your argument seems to primarily revolve around the idea that a person may be of mixed heritage, and so the test may not be accurate or may not take that into account.  Perhaps that's true, but if a test comes out and says, without any room for error, that the DNA is from a fully caucasian person, isn't that information valuable? 

Never mind what it could be used for, or how colour-blind society is (or isn't), this is a valuable forensic tool.  It's not 100% accurate, but it's probably more reliable than fingerprints.  Would anyone be unhappy about this if it detailed a subject's height or eye colour?  That skin colour is a charged issue in some societies is a problem with society, not the test itself.

DNA testing to determine race is one more tool in a policeman's arsenal.  To ignore it is foolish.
BLEARGH
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Member since May 2011 · 2473 posts · Location: Brisbane
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The DNAWitness site has some very interesting text on the issue of race.
BLEARGH
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Everybody's of mixed heritage. The Moors got all around Europe. The Celts got far enough that one of them insinuated himself into my otherwise Chinese bloodline. The Italians and Phonecians sailed everywhere and left illegitimate children anywhere there were horizontal surfaces.

The fact that the test divides race into just four categories shows how arbitrary the conclusions drawn are. Will an Inuit be identified as East Asian or Native American, given what we know about the Alaska land bridge? Would a Libyan be identified as European, African, or Asian? You need paint chips and an adam's apple detector to tell all the different Brazilians apart, and are Australian aborigines left out of the list entirely? There will always been too few or too many race categories, depending on who you ask and what time of day it is.

Forget about the tool for a minute and imagine what's done with the conclusions drawn. Airport security all over the world in 2002 was paying extra attention to brown-skinned people named Mohammed just because Arabs were unfairly identified as potential terrorists. The shoe bomber was a guy with pale skin named Richard Ried. You can't separate the color-blindness of society from the way it uses forensic tools, and it's not rational.
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Let's put this another way. Take any Lebanese man, give him a perm and nose surgery, wardrobe from Sears, and have him live in Quebec. He sure looks white to me. Does he look white to you? Does our genetic test tell us that he from western Asia but that everybody in the world will look at him and see that he's white? How about a Macedonian with no family from south of Athens but has big lips and lives in the black neighborhood in Atlanta? He sure looks black to me. Does he look black to you? In this context, does it make sense to you why this test creates such fear among law enforcement?
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Member since May 2011 · 2473 posts · Location: Brisbane
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I'm obviously some sort of race-blind idealist, 'cause I don't see people in colour.  All my friends are freaks of one sort or another, and the colour of their skin means as much to me as the colour of their eyes.  I don't understand people who consider race anything other than a means of determining vitamin-D production under the hot hot sun.

If someone says to me "there's a 99.9% chance that the guy who jerked off on your car was a white man" I'd think "hey, pay more attention to the greasy honkey over there than the greasy black dude beside him."  I don't think "hey, all whities is bad!"  And you know what?  Fuck those who do think like that.  I don't consider them important when I'm saying these forensic tools are valuable.  I don't think any of us should.
BLEARGH
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But see, the science and the sociology come together in that statement in a very uncomfortable way. What the data actually says is, 'There's a 99.9 percent chance that the person who jacked off on your car is of predominantly European descent, based on the genetic and mitochondrial comparisons to arbitrary samples that have been gathered in advance and are being used as a baseline by consensus.' In your example, that greasy black dude might be Tiger Woods, who did jack off on your car but has gotten away with it because somebody interpreted the data to mean 'white guy' and labels Tiger as a 'black guy' based solely on his appearance.

Unless we plan to segregate the races again, I don't think this tool will prove useful against other established forensic devices and methods. It doesn't do any good to chase down a whole demographic, not when other methods produce more definitive results. I have nothing but admiration and envy for your idealism, but I don't think that the pragmatism that's got you so angry is at all misplaced.
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